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Sunday’s 4th down failures won’t stop the Falcons from going for it in the future

Atlanta’s success a year go, plus the strength of their personnel, will ensure they’re not gunshy about it.

NFL: SEP 29 Titans at Falcons Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the biggest failings of Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks was the team’s performance on their attempted 4th down conversions. Atlanta has Todd Gurley on hand behind an offensive line recently re-stocked with fresh talent, plus Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, and Hayden Hurst on hand, and yet they went 0 for 4 on those attempts. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s a very different game if they get an average result, which based on the leaguewide rate in recent history would have been 2 for 4.

In 2019, the Falcons converted about 62% of their 21 4th down tries, the fourth-best rate in the NFL and the 10th-highestnumber of attempts. In 2018, that number was around 52%, which was middle-of-the-pack for the NFL. Considering the league average hovered around 50% last year, the Falcons have ample reason to look their success rate a year ago and the caliber of their weapons on offense and conclude that Sunday’s goose egg is an aberration.

To add to the original article here, Dirk Koetter confirmed this, suggesting that over the course of the season things will flatten out and that Atlanta trusts its analytics, as nebulous as that term may be.

“I do believe in analytics,” Koetter said. “But here’s what everyone has to remember about analytics. Analytics play out over 16 games. When you say you should go for two every time or you should go for it on fourth-and-1 every time — if you play that out over 16 games, yes, the numbers will come out in your favor. But just as we saw (Sunday), when you have that 0-for-3 game, you’re not feeling very good about it, right?”

They’re right to think that way, and I would not want the Falcons to become timid about going for it on fourth down because of one really lousy game on that front. Atlanta’s offense shouldn’t often find itself in 4th down situations—one of my major quibbles with Dirk Koetter continues to be the number of unproductive early downs—but when they do they should be able and willing to try to keep drives alive. It’s just a question of making the right call and carefully weighing the game situation.

Take the first 4th down attempt. Atlanta was on down 7-3, but they had just watched Seattle march downfield against them with the help of a pass interference call. They found themselves in a bit of a no man’s land at the Seattle 40, which would have made for a 57 yard field goal attempt for Younghoe Koo and a very short punt for Sterling Hofrichter. They had just gotten backed up to 4th and 3 on a Brian Hill run that lost two yards, so the choice was really between the punt and trying to throw a pass. They chose the latter and Matt Ryan didn’t have much time to get rid of it in the direction of Todd Gurley before Benson Mayowa knifed in and deflected the pass, ruining the drive. The Seahawks would go on to easily score, opening up an 11 point lead that the Falcons came close to erasing before the third quarter blew everything up.

I think it’s more than fair to quibble with the decision given the risks associated with giving Seattle a short field and how close the game was, but really the problem was more that the play call didn’t work out, given that you could make a reasonable case for going for it outside of your kicker’s real or perceived range. I was frustrated with it yesterday in a way I’m not today, because the execution was what doomed this one (and heck, all three others).

Still, the other decisions are easier to question a day later. The fake punt on 4th and 2 from the Atlanta 33 was an inspired bit of play calling and would’ve worked out had Sharrod Neasman not fumbled, but the Falcons were only down 9 at that point and were well aware of the risks associated with giving the Seahawks a very short field, making it less of a defensible call. The 4th and 2 call to go for it on Seattle’s 11 down 16 is harder to quibble with but the execution didn’t work, and a chip shot field goal would’ve made it a 13 point game for Atlanta, so it’s at least fair to question. Going for it in the 4th quarter from the Seattle 35 was a case of Atlanta trying furiously to rally after all the other attempts had already gone awry, but it also gave Seattle a chance to salt the game away for good, which they gladly did.

The upshot here is that there will be better weeks ahead for the Falcons on fourth down, and they neither should or will get cold feet about going for based on what we just saw. All we can hope for is that the team mulls their situations carefully and players execute better the next time a conversion opportunity comes up.