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Falcons run the ball at the third-highest rate on 2nd and long

Dirk Koetter has often been criticized for his conservative tendencies on 2nd down, and it appears those criticisms are warranted: the Falcons currently run the ball at the third-highest rate in the league on 2nd-and-long, the total opposite of the strategy suggested by analytics.

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The 2020 version of the Atlanta Falcons, much like the 2020 version of most things, are very, very bad. While most of this badness is centralized in the Dan Quinn/Raheem Morris defense and Ben Kotwica’s special teams, the offense has not been without fault through Atlanta’s 0-3 start to the season. Last week, I called attention to Koetter’s overly-conservative tendencies on second down. This week, we’ll look at another similar problem with the offense: running the ball on 2nd-and-long.

The 2nd-and-long run has been one of the most consistent boogeymen of the analytics community. It’s a symptom of a flawed offensive strategy in most cases, where the schemes of old were focused on putting the offense in a 3rd-and-short situation—which you’d expect to be easier to convert than a 3rd-and-long.

But we know now, particularly in the modern era of NFL football, that it’s a far better strategy to try to avoid the 3rd down altogether by being aggressive on 2nd down. That means passing the ball at or beyond the sticks—something that Koetter has also struggled to do, as Atlanta’s pitiful 4.1 YPA on 2nd down suggests. For reference, that number dropped precipitously after Week 3 from the already low 5.79 YPA that I talked about last week.

It’s been somewhat of a running joke on Twitter to call out the offense every time Koetter calls a 2nd-and-long run, but how often do the Falcons really run the ball in that situation? The answer is: more often than just about any other NFL team.

The Falcons run the ball on 2nd-and-long, which Ben Baldwin considers to be 2nd-and-8+, at the third-highest rate of all NFL teams. Only the Bengals and Jets—two of the worst teams in the league, mind you—call runs more frequently than the Falcons. Notably, all three teams have also failed to notch a single win through the first three weeks of the season.

Put simply, the Falcons offense is a storm of contradictions. Koetter’s scheme seems to try to merge aggressive downfield passing on 1st down (good!) with incredibly conservative rushing and short passing on 2nd down (huh?). It’s a bad combination, because doing the first thing tends to lead to situations where you need to be more aggressive—not more conservative. Running the ball on 2nd-and-long not only signals that the coaching staff either ignores or disagrees with pretty simple analytics, but also reveals a faulty offensive strategy.

“Playing for 3rd down” is a bad idea, for any offense. It’s particularly egregious for an offense with the weapons and passing game acumen that the Falcons clearly possess. When Matt Ryan and the passing game are unleashed on 1st down, the team is at their best. Ryan is averaging an incredible 10.7 YPA on 1st-and-10. On 2nd down runs, the team averages just 4.3 YPC, and on passes a pitiful 4.1 YPA.

For the Falcons to win games, the offense has to be among the league’s best. It’ll be hard to do that when they’re making obvious schematic mistakes and ignoring one of the simplest lessons of football analytics.

Stop playing for 3rd down, Koetter. Don’t be afraid to lean on the intermediate (10-20 yard) passing game on 2nd down, and for the love of god, stop running the ball on 2nd-and-long.