There are several weird things going on with the Falcons offense this year. This is a team that has had the opportunity to run more plays than all but two teams, but is 18th in the NFL in yards per play and 8th in the league in scoring. They have the opportunities and personnel to be one of the greatest offenses in the NFL, but if you dig beyond yardage alone (4th in the NFL), there’s obviously a lot being left on the field.
There are numerous clues here, some of which we’ve covered already, including Kevin Knight’s deep dive into this team’s failure to take care of conversion opportunities on 2nd downs. One that looms particularly large, though, is the team’s failures on 3rd down.
A year ago, the Falcons were second in the NFL in terms of first downs generated, and in 2020 they’re 3rd in the league. That’s the sign of an offense that can grind away but can’t always generate big plays, something that’s confirmed by the fact that Atlanta has 100 third down attempts, the highest number in the entire NFL and in the same company as teams like Philadelphia, Washington, and the Jets. They’re 13th in the NFL in conversion percentage, and when you’re generating more third downs than anyone else with some of the best receiving options in the league, that’s a huge concern.
I’ve been trying to be fair to Dirk Koetter and give him credit when it’s due, especially when this team put together a couple of brilliant, long drives against Detroit last week. But while straight up player execution failures have been a genuine factor on third down, the larger issue remains an offensive coordinator who frequently fails to put his offense in a great position to succeed on third down.
As Aaron Freeman noted, this is not a new problem for Koetter, and the contrast between his Falcons offenses in 2020 thus far and 2019 to Steve Sarkisian’s in 2018 is jarring. Back in 2018, the Falcons were 4th in the NFL in conversion percentage (45.3%) and were 18th in attempts, owing partly to an offense that was capable of being more explosive. In contrast, they were 11th in conversion percentage last year (42.0%) and 13th in attempts, and as mentioned, 13th in conversion percentage this year and 1st in attempts. They are getting to third down too often, and not converting often enough for an offense that essentially plays to get to a short third down.
Solving this involves doing two things effectively: Getting to third down less frequently, and then figuring out to convert when they do get there. On the first item, the Falcons need to stop running so many plays that aim to get them to a manageable third down, period. The Falcons convert second downs to first downs at just a 31% clip through the air and 32% on the ground, a very telling sign of what their priority is on those downs.
For the second item, the Falcons desperately need to avoid long third downs as a start, which plays into more productive early down discussions. They’ve converted just 25% of their third down tries with 10 yards or more to go, compared to much more productive totals on all other distances. They’ve had 25 chances at 3rd and 4-6, and their 44% conversion rate there could also stand to go up, likely by figuring out better route combinations as Freeman and Karoly allude to above. They also need to need run again on 3rd and 7 or longer, because they’ve done so 7 times and have converted on exactly none of them.
I can’t stand in Dirk Koetter’s sensible shoes and pick out the right way to solve these issues besides advocating for this team to take more 1st down shots on early downs, because I’m absolutely sure my results would be worse. I can say with some confidence, however, that until the Falcons start taking care of their inability or unwillingness to convert on 2nd and getting the job done on 3rd downs, the offense will fall well short of its considerable potential.