Much of the conversation surrounding the Falcons this season has understandably centered around the offensive and defensive units. That shouldn’t detract from the fact that Atlanta’s special teams have been the most solid group.
The obvious highlights of the season are the blocked punt against Los Angeles and Cordarrelle Patterson’s record-breaking kickoff return against the Bears, but there are plenty more positives to point to. It has not all been tip-top for the Falcons, however, and we’ll dig into the good and bad as we go unit by unit through the special teams to this point.
Let’s get started, shall we?
- No. of kickoffs: 62
- No. of touchbacks: 46
- Average return yards allowed: 22.3 (21st in the NFL)
The Falcons haven’t been bad on kickoff coverage, necessarily, but they haven’t been a standout group by any means. Punter Bradley Pinion has handled every kickoff so far this season, and he actually ranks fifth among all kickers in touchbacks. He’ll likely drop slightly after the bye week, but he should remain fairly high. The high number of touchbacks also makes the return average slightly more tolerable.
Atlanta has really only given up a few long returns, the longest of which was a 55-yarder by Chicago’s Velus Jones Jr. As always, the No. 1 goal is to not surrender a touchdown, and the Falcons have aced that test so far. The primary players on the coverage unit have been Mike Ford and Keith Smith – who has played every snap – as well as KhaDarel Hodge, Erik Harris and Troy Andersen.
- No. of returns: 21 (T-17th)
- Total return yards: 524 (13th)
- Average yards per return: 25.0 (4th)
This has been a superb aspect of Atlanta’s season, but it has started to wane of late. The Falcons rank fourth in the league with an average of 25 yards per return. They are only 15th with 40.3 return yards per game, but that is due to having just 21 returns, which are the fewest among teams who have played 13 games.
The Falcons join the Vikings and Ravens as the only teams to have a kickoff return for a touchdown, and Patterson’s 103-yard score is tied with Baltimore’s Devin Duvernay as the longest return of the year.
Patterson is the team leader with 268 kickoff return yards on just eight carries; he ranks fourth in the league with 33.5 yards per return. Gaining 103 yards on a single return will do that for you.
Avery Williams has by no means been a slouch as a returner this season either, picking up 235 return yards on a team-high 11 returns. Williams has been back there for every kick return snap, and he’s joined in the perfect-attendance club by Parker Hesse, Hodge, and Keith Smith – who also has two returns for 21 yards.
- No. of punts: 48 (T-15th)
- No. of touchbacks: 2 (T-6th)
- Yards per punt: 46.3 (22nd)
- Yards allowed per return: 11.0 (26th)
The main theme of Atlanta’s special teams this season has been outstanding return units and fairly average coverage units. That’s very much the case when it comes to the punt teams as well. Pinion has been fairly consistent in 2022 and not at all bad. He’s third in the league with an average hangtime of 4.53 seconds – a priority for this team – and has kept the ball out of the end zone.
The coverage group has one glaring blemish – a 35-yard return by Ray-Ray McCloud in Week 6. They’ve given up a handful of returns over 10 yards this season though, which is too many considering Pinion’s average hang time. Troy Andersen, who tracked down McCloud to potentially save a touchdown, has played every snap of punt coverage and been a standout.
- No. of returns: 16 (T-26th)
- Total return yards: 279 (T-4th)
- Average yards per return: 17.4 (1st)
Patterson’s record-setting touchdown has rightfully captured the spotlight this season for the Falcons’ return game, but Williams has been the more consistent returner and he’s been downright excellent on punts. He leads the NFL with 17.4 yards per return and his 56-yard return against the Bengals is the third-longest this season. He’s given the Falcons’ offense excellent field position on more than one occasion, and it’s an excellent sign for the second-year player drafted for his return prowess.
Alongside Williams for all 42 punt return snaps this year have been Ford and Richie Grant. Andersen has played 41 snaps, and his most memorable was the block against the Rams. Lorenzo Carter recovered that block for a touchdown, and he’s been a standout on the return team as well.
- Field goal attempts: 28 (T-6th)
- Field goals made: 23 (T-8th)
- Field goal percentage: .821 (30th)
- Extra-point attempts: 29 (T-8th)
- Extra points made: 27 (T-8th)
- Extra-point percentage: .931 (T-31st)
On the one hand, this has been another quality season from Younghoe Koo. On the other, he’s been less efficient than we’re accustomed to. The Thursday night game against Carolina – one everyone would like to forget – saw Koo miss one field goal and have another blocked. Koo had another kick blocked in the season-opening loss to New Orleans, but that was a 63-yarder at the end of the game. In fact, three of Koo’s five misses were from more than 50 yards out, but he ranks fourth in the league with six makes from that distance.
The blocked kicks are more a product of the low trajectory needed for a long kick than a real cause for concern with the blocking unit. And the kick operation of Liam McCullough, Bradley Pinion and Koo has been rock-solid.
As for the field-goal block unit, the Falcons have come close to getting a few this season but haven’t quite gotten home.