As The Falcoholic’s resident expert in criticizing Dirk Koetter, I feel I need to begin this piece by actually praising him. He’s been dealt a difficult hand in the form of a defense that is giving up an utterly ridiculous 39.0 points per game, and has been forced to play from behind far too often. Even with a lead, Koetter is essentially forced to call the offense like he’s behind, because the expectation is that the defense literally cannot stop anyone.
On that note, the offense has clearly not been the biggest problem with the 2020 incarnation of the Falcons. The defense obviously takes the top spot, and the special teams is right behind them due to their utter incompetence in Week 2. Koetter’s offense has managed to do some pretty good things through two weeks: the Falcons are currently 5th in scoring offense, 4th in total yardage, and 2nd in passing yardage.
However, there are a few concerns with the unit that are worth pointing out, and they go hand-in-hand with each other. First of all, the running game has been disappointing. Even with the addition of Todd Gurley and an improved offensive line, the rushing attack is anemic at best. Atlanta is currently 15th in rushing attempts, but just 28th in rushing yardage—that’s totally unacceptable, but unfortunately quite familiar.
The other aspect of the offense that I have a big issue with is the overly conservative playcalling, particularly on 2nd down. This has been an issue that has plagued Koetter’s offenses for most of his tenure, due to what I believe is a faulty overall offensive mindset. In general, there seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to offense: the more aggressive strategy of trying for 1st downs on every down, or the conservative strategy of trying to put yourself in favorable 3rd down situations (i.e. 3rd-and-short).
Analytics is clear on which of these strategies is better, overall, for offenses. It should be obvious to most that trying to avoid 3rd downs altogether is the best strategy, as 3rd downs are inherently risky. Even 3rd-and-1 is a play you’d rather avoid, particularly if you’re the Falcons, because a failure means a punt more often than not. An aggressive strategy, particularly on 2nd down, is generally correlated with better overall offensive success. Hence the current backlash to coordinators who love to run on 2nd-and-long.
Speaking of coordinators who love to run on 2nd-and-long, enter Dirk Koetter and a Falcons offense that is among the league’s worst at generating 1st downs on 2nd down.
One of the biggest problems with Koetter's offense? He uses 2nd down to set up 3rd and short, not to get 1st downs. As a result, Falcons are 5th worst in generating 1st downs on 2nd down. https://t.co/IrzzOxbKfR— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) September 23, 2020
According to the chart, the Falcons are currently 5th-worst at generating 1st downs on 2nd down. The reason for this is actually twofold: a high percentage of rushing attempts coming on 2nd-and-long (7+ yards), and calling pass plays short of the sticks on those same downs.
For reference, the Falcons ran the ball on 41% (!!) of 2nd and 7-9 plays for a putrid 2.9 YPC. On 2nd and 10+, the Falcons ran on 29% of plays for an actually-good 7.8 YPC—though the sample size here is very small. Meanwhile, when passing on 2nd and 7+, the Falcons managed just 5.79 YPA—generally several yards short of the 1st down. This shows a scheme purposefully designed to put the team in 3rd-and-short situations, instead of a scheme looking to pick up 1st down yardage on 2nd down.
There are good reasons why you shouldn’t run the ball on 2nd and 7+. If you don’t have an elite RB or rushing offense, you’re probably averaging close to 4.0 YPC—or if you’re the Falcons, more like 3.5 YPC. That means that an “average” result on a rushing play would not result in a first down, and even a well above-average play (say, a 7-yard run for the Falcons, double the average) would be unlikely to get you there either. So you’re essentially playing for 3rd down instead of actually expecting to get a 1st down.
Meanwhile, a pass on 2nd and 7+ offers far more upside for a passing offense as talented as Atlanta’s. To use a similar example, an “average” play for the passing attack is currently 8.0 yards. So Matt Ryan and the passing attack would be expected to generate a 1st down on 2nd and 7-8 on an “average” play, which should occur about 50% of the time. On an above-average play (double the YPA, so 16.0 yards), the Falcons would convert easily. This strategy actually presents an opportunity to avoid the risk of a 3rd down altogether, and is also more likely to produce a third-and-short than a 2nd down run! However, you need to actually call downfield routes in these situations or it all falls apart, as you can see by the Falcons’ anemic 5.79 YPA on 2nd-and-long.
Interestingly, the Falcons don’t take this conservative approach on 1st down—and it’s led to a lot of success. On 1st-and-10, the most run-heavy down in the NFL, Atlanta actually tends to pass more often than run (55% pass, 45% run). They’ve also been very aggressive on this down when throwing the ball, averaging 10.4 YPA on 33 attempts, and have generated more 1st downs on 1st-and-10 than they have on 2nd down period (14 1D on 1st-and-10, 9 1D on 2nd downs). This 1st down passing success hasn’t translated to the run game, unfortunately, as Atlanta’s rushing attack has generated a very mediocre 3.3 YPC in these same situations.
What we’re seeing here is a weird mismatch of aggressiveness and conservative playcalling that...well, don’t make much sense. Clearly, this Falcons team is adept at passing the ball downfield in long down-and-distance situations. Hell, they’re actually significantly better when facing longer situations: the Falcons worst down-and-distance is currently 3rd and 1-3, where they’ve averaged a putrid 0.66 yards per play. So why do they turn into a conservative, “play for a 3rd-and-manageable” offense when 2nd down hits?
It has to be a philosophical decision on the part of Dirk Koetter, because the stats clearly show that this offense is best when it’s attacking downfield. We know Atlanta came into the season wanting to lean on the run game and deliver a more balanced attack, but with perhaps the league’s worst defense that isn’t really a viable strategy anymore. Not to mention that Koetter really doesn’t have a good feel for calling the running game and hasn’t done so successfully since his days in Jacksonville with Maurice Jones-Drew.
Obviously, we’re still very early in the season and these stats are drawn from a sample of less than 200 plays. Numbers could change quite significantly over the coming weeks, and we should have a stronger overall picture in time. But the fact that the Falcons are playing so conservatively on 2nd down is a bad omen for a team that is going to depend on the offense to put up 30+ points a week to have any chance of victory.
It’s time to embrace the truth: the Falcons should be a pass-first, aggressive downfield attack. Dirk Koetter and Dan Quinn should stop trying to make them into something they’re not. Let Matt Ryan, an excellent WR trio in Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Russell Gage, an ascending TE in Hayden Hurst, and an improving offensive line go out there and take over games.