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Atlanta’s offense is on pace to be genuinely improved in 2020

Let’s take a closer look at the team’s pace on offense through six games of 2020.

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

We didn’t do this at the quarter mark of the season because things were so grim, in part, but after the team’s first win it seems like a good idea to check in on Atlanta’s pace through six games.

We’ll start with the offense, and because what’s belong is so lengthy, I’m not going to bother with preamble.

Falcons Offense

2020 Pace: 432 points, 6,459 yards, 13 turnovers; 4,665 passing yards, 1,794 rushing yards, 376 first downs, 85 penalties

2019 Final: 381 points, 6,075 yards, 25 turnovers; 4,714 passing yards, 1,361 rushing yards, 383 first downs, 119 penalties

Despite three anemic efforts this year against Seattle (to a lesser extent), Green Bay and Carolina, the Falcons are on pace to blow by almost every single one of their 2019 offensive marks. Dirk Koetter drives me berserk at his best, but with an improving offensive line and Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst in tow, there’s no point in denying that this offense is improving in ways large and small. I’ll tip my cap to him, even if I know we’ll reach the end of the year knowing that this offense could’ve been even better.

QB Matt Ryan

2020 Pace: 347/425, 65%, 4,921 yards, 29 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 7.6 Y/A, 35 sacks

2019 Final: 408/616, 66%, 4,466 yards, 26 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 7.3 Y/A, 48 sacks

Ryan’s on pace for a better year, full stop, and a much more efficient one. Last year the Falcons were slinging all day every day in an effort to keep up, and this year they’ve been able to limit attempts a bit more with closer games and a more effective ground game. If the pace holds, this won’t go down as Ryan’s finest season, but it will be a very good one.

RB Todd Gurley

2020 Pace: 264 carries, 1,127 yards, 13 touchdowns, 4.3 YPA; 29 catches, 155 yards, 5.3 YPR

2019 Final: 223 carries, 857 yards, 12 touchdowns, 3.8 YPA; 31 catches, 207 yards, 6.7 YPR, 2 TDs

I’m ready to call this one after six games: Gurley’s slippage in 2019 was more on the coaching staff with the Rams than any other factor. There will still be weeks where his usage is more limited here in Atlanta and plays where his explosiveness doesn’t look quite fully Gurley, but when Dirk Koetter is using you far more effectively than Sean McVay, that’s pretty telling.

Better blocking up front has made a huge difference for Gurley, but he’s also looked very good in recent weeks, and when he’s getting annihilated behind the line it’s hardly his fault. Given a little wiggle room he excels, and he’s on pace for the best single season in terms of rushing yards and touchdowns since peak Michael Turner. His usage as a receiver has been sporadic and largely ineffective thus far, but that could change over time as well. I viewed Gurley as a marketing-first signing, given his appeal to Georgia fans and likeability, but hoped he could give us the kind of excellent play he did through his first few season in the NFL. He’s doing it.

RB Brian Hill

2020 Pace: 93 carries, 430 yards, 4.6 YPA, 3 touchdowns; 29 catches, 200 yards, 6.8 YPR

2019 Final: 78 carries, 323 yards, 4.1 YPA, 1 touchdown; 10 catches, 69 yards, 6.9 YPR, 1 touchdown

Hill is heading toward his finest NFL season, as well, and on balance I do think we have to give Dirk Koetter credit for making an honest attempt to balance the scales on offense in a way that’s been mostly effective. Hill’s fumble against Minnesota was a significant lowlight, but otherwise he’s on pace to post career highs in carries, yards, touchdowns, catches, and receiving yards, and he’s been an effective, physical complement to Gurley. My hope would be that he’s back next year to serve as a 1A/2 option for a rookie back, because he’s shown plenty over the last couple of seasons.

RB Ito Smith

2020 Pace: 32 carries, 109 yards, 3.4 YPA; 19 catches, 115 yards, 6.1 YPR

2019 Final: 22 carries, 106 yards, 4.8 YPA; 11 catches, 87 yards, 7.9 YPR

The Judge is the clear third fiddle in a two fiddle group, which means his pace numbers for 2020 are fairly close to his numbers for 2019, when he played in just 7 games. Unless injury rears its ugly head, he’ll likely be the third guy the rest of the year, with more utility as a receiver than a runner, given that he’s clearly very capable in the latter.

FB Keith Smith

2020 Pace: 5 carries, 8 yards, 1.5 YPA; 11 catches, 29 yards, 2.8 YPR

2019 Final: 5 carries, 8 yards, 1.5 YPA; 1 catch, 13 yards, 13.0 YPR

Smith is a capable blocker and beyond capable special teamer who shouldn’t touch the ball unless Matt Ryan is about to be tucked into the turf by a 300 pound man and there is literally no one else to go to. He’s on pace to shatter his career high in receptions, as the 4 he has today is a career high for a single season, and I hope that doesn’t continue because Koetter has shown no interest in using him as a weapon and shouldn’t look to given the number of weapons on this offense.

Let this man do his glorious blocking and let’s move on.

WR Julio Jones

2020 Pace: 61 catches, 934 yards, 15.2 YPR, 5 touchdowns

2019 Final: 99 catches, 1,394 yards, 14.1 YPR, 6 touchdowns

The pace is likely to be way off for Julio, given that he effectively missed 2.5 games and can have massive, pace-shattering efforts in any given week. If injuries continue to plague him we might see something along the lines of where he’s currently headed, which would be fine numbers but easily one of the weakest statistical seasons of #11’s illustrious career.

In the end, I think you’ll see him clear 1,000 yards easily. Everything else I wouldn’t bet on just yet.

WR Calvin Ridley

2020 Pace: 93 catches, 1,458 yards, 15.6 YPR, 13 touchdowns; 8 carries, 37 yards, 4.7 YPA

2019 Final: 63 catches, 866 yards, 13.7 YPR, 7 touchdowns; 2 carries, 34 yards, 17.0 YPA

As Hayden Hurst becomes more involved, Russell Gage picks up his pace again, and Julio returns to the field, it’s likely Ridley’s absurd gaudy pace will come down a bit. I like his chances of easily clearly 80 receptions, 1,000 yards, and 10 touchdowns, but after that I’m less certain given the factors I just mentioned.

Still, Ridley is having his breakout campaign as expected, and is likely to finish 2020 as one of the top receivers in terms of yardage and touchdown grabs. He’d be a clear top option on most teams in the NFL today, and the fact that the Falcons have both him and Julio to throw to is not something we should take for granted.

WR Russell Gage

2020 Pace: 67 catches, 772 yards, 11.6 YPR, 3 touchdowns; 3 carries, -6 yards, -2.0 YPA

2019 Final: 49 catches, 446 yards, 9.1 YPR, 1 touchdown; 4 carries, 12 yards, 3.0 YPA

Like Ridley, Gage is on pace for easily the finest season of his career, one driven by increased volume and improving skills. Like Ridley, his numbers could be impacted by more targets for Hurst and Julio’s return, but he’s being used deep a little more often and is an underrated blocker who will rarely be off the field. These pace numbers feel like they’ll end up being pretty accurate to me.

WR Olamide Zaccheaus

2020 Pace: 37 catches, 400 yards, 10.7 YPR

2019 Final: 3 catches, 115 yards, 38.3 YPR, 1 touchdown

Zaccheaus had one massive catch last year and not much else, but this year he’s shown he can be an active and effective piece of this offense if called upon. When everyone’s healthy he’s not going to get many targets, but he’s a capable receiver and will step in if anyone gets hurt. He’ll likely have the #4 or #5 job lined up in the next regime too, but don’t expect him to hit his pace numbers if Julio, Ridley, Gage, and Hurst are all healthy and involved.

WR Christian Blake

2020 Pace: 11 catches, 139 yards, 13.0 YPR

2019 Final: 11 catches, 91 yards, 8.3 YPR

I had Blake figured for the #4 receiver, given his lack of involvement on special teams a year ago and the coaching staff’s fondness for him, but in practice he’s been the #5 guy and hasn’t received much run thus far. If injury hits again he may have brighter days ahead, but he’ll probably slot in about here, an occasionally useful sideline option who has quietly become a very useful special teams option.

WR Brandon Powell

2020 Pace: 8 catches, 72 yards, 9.0 YPR

2019 Final: N/A

Matt Ryan has shown when other options are hurt, Powell is a guy he’ll occasionally look for on short-to-medium routes, something I wouldn’t have expected of the nominal #6 receiver. Like Blake, he’ll have more utility if injuries pile up, but otherwise he’ll be sparingly used.

TE Hayden Hurst

2020 Pace: 51 catches, 606 yards, 11.9 YPR, 8 touchdowns

2019 Final: 30 catches, 349 yards, 11.6 YPR, 2 touchdowns

Hurst seems likely to shatter his career highs this season and is faring better than Austin Hooper is in Cleveland thus far, but he seems unlikely to catch the 2019 incarnation of Hooper in terms of catches or yards. The team has shown a willingness to go to Hurst in a variety of situations—he’s third on the team in targets and has been frequently targeted in the red zone—but so far missed throws by Matt Ryan or a failure to get open has kept Hurst from having a massive year.

If the target count keeps up he might move by his current pace a little bit, but at worst he’s been a very solid fourth option who still needs some work on his blocking. The talent here still suggests he could finish the year very strong.

TE Luke Stocker

2020 Pace: 5 catches, 21 yards, 4.3 YPR

2019 Final: 8 catches, 53 yards, 6.6 YPR

Stocker’s here to block and very occasionally make a catch, like Keith Smith. He’ll probably finish up just about where his pace suggests and that’s fine so long as he continues to chip in on special teams and block effectively.

TE Jaeden Graham

2020 Pace: 3 catches, 19 yards, 6.3 YPR

2019 Final: 9 catches, 149 yards, 16.6 YPR, 1 touchdown

Graham carved out a larger role with Austin Hooper down last year, but with Hurst and Stocker in action he simply isn’t getting many chances in the passing game this year. Again, don’t expect that to change unless injury hits.