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Fast, explosive start can lift Falcons over Ravens

Kicking their recent habit of struggling to score after explosive plays, could get the Falcons back in the win column

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons are looking to break their three-game losing streak in a tough road matchup against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16. The key to Atlanta’s success could rest on their ability to dial up an explosive play early in the game to go on the offensive.

That would be a welcome change from last week’s performance, when the Falcons quickly fell into a 14-0 hole to the rival New Orleans Saints just seven minutes into that game, which eventually ended in a 21-18 loss.

I have long been a proponent of the need for explosiveness in modern NFL offenses, measured by their ability to generate chunk plays of 20 or more yards. Since 2010, I’ve tracked every drive in which the Falcons have produced such a play. From 2010 through 2021, there were 661 drives that included a play of 20 or more yards, resulting in 2,843 points. That’s an average of 4.3 points per drive. On those drives, the Falcons reached the red zone 56 percent of the time, scored 76 percent of the time, and had 51 percent of those drives end in a touchdown.

Compare that to 1,397 drives in that 12-year span that did not include an explosive play, where the Falcons averaged 1.24 points per drive. They reached the red zone only 22 percent of the time, scored on 26 percent of those drives, and reached the end zone on just 12 percent.

The 2022 Falcons have been pretty much par for the course in comparison to the previous years’ averages. This year’s team is averaging 4.1 points on 38 big-play drives. They’re reaching the red zone on 55 percent of those drives, scoring on 74 percent, and reaching paydirt in the end zone on 47 percent.

Those numbers are slightly down from the 12-year average across those categories, but annual fluctuation is normal within the data. For example, the 2016 Falcons averaged 5.1 points per big-play drive, which was the highest average of the dataset. That came only a year after the lowest average where the 2015 team scored just 3.8 points per drive.

Yet a deeper look at the 2022 numbers shows that through the first half of the season, the Falcons were in fact far exceeding those annual averages. When the Falcons started the season 4-4 to take a lead in the NFC South, their numbers on explosive drives were comparable with their historical 2016 offense.

Run game’s early explosiveness led to 2022’s promising start

This year’s team through the first eight games averaged 4.8 points per drive, reached the red zone on 63 percent of big-play drives, scored 88 percent of the time and registered touchdowns 54 percent of the time. The 2016 Falcons reached the red zone on 63 percent of their big-play drives, scored 86 percent of the time, and found the end zone on 64 percent of drives.

Regression could be expected given that few would confuse Matt Ryan’s MVP performance in 2016 with what we saw on a weekly basis from quarterback Marcus Mariota through the first half of 2022. Another notable difference is that the 2022 Falcons are relying a lot more on explosive runs than previous years’ teams. The 2022 team’s 15 explosive runs nearly match the 2016 total of 16, but represent a far larger piece of this season’s 45 total explosive plays compared to 2016’s 98-play total.

Despite the running game’s continued success, the Falcons have struggled to convert their explosive plays into points since the midpoint. Essentially, the Falcons’ luck turned for the worse ever since kicker Younghoe Koo missed a 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of their Week 9 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. That miss came only a few plays after Mariota escaped pressure and hit running back Tyler Allgeier on a 24-yard pass.

Recent Falcons explosiveness matches all-time lows

Over the last six games, the Falcons are averaging just 2.9 points per big-play drive. They’ve reached the red zone 43 percent of the time, scored on 50 percent of drives, and found the end zone on 36 percent of those drives. This slump would fail to reach the lows of the worst figures put up in the previous 12 seasons. As mentioned earlier, 2015 saw the lowest points per drive, which also translated into an all-time low of 65 percent scoring rate on big-play drives. The 2018 Falcons struggled the most to reach the red zone after explosive plays, doing so on just 45 percent of their drives. It was the 2020 Falcons that had the lowest touchdown-scoring rate, crossing the goal line on 41 percent of their explosive drives.

Some of the current team’s struggles can’t be helped. For example, their only explosive play against the Chicago Bears came on the final drive where Allgeier ripped off a 26-yard run to seal the game. The Falcons didn’t score any points on that drive because they immediately went into victory formation during the final minute.

Then, the following week against Washington saw the Falcons generate two explosive plays to wideout Olamide Zaccheaus that also resulted in no points. The first time came when they failed to follow up a 23-yard pass to Zaccheaus thanks to being stymied on a fourth-down run to Cordarrelle Patterson in the second quarter. Then after Zaccheaus’ 45-yard catch late in the fourth quarter, their failure came at the goal line thanks to Da’Ron Payne tipping the ball into the waiting arms of Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller to seal their opponents’ win.

Simply put, the Falcons need to get their early-season, explosive groove back. Thankfully, things have looked up the past two weeks where the Falcons’ four explosive-play drives have all resulted in scores for a total of 20 points. Yet, three of those four scores came when the Falcons were already down two scores. Such big plays helped them claw their way back into both games, but obviously, it would be advantageous to avoid such deficits altogether.

That would require the defense to play better early on, which was not the case last week against the Saints. However, the Falcons’ offense starting fast would contribute a lot since they are 4-2 this season in games in which they’ve been tied or held a lead at the end of the first quarter. Four of those games: Seattle, Cleveland, San Francisco and L.A. included an Atlanta explosive play on their opening drive.

Early lead vs. Ravens will be a challenge, but doable

Last week’s Saints loss saw the Falcons attempt a shot play on their opening drive. However, rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder missed his deep ball to Patterson on his first pass. Consequently, dialing up a similar explosive play this week against the Ravens could prove difficult. The 2022 Ravens defense has allowed just nine plays of 20 or more yards in the first quarter, tied for the sixth-fewest in the NFL.

But all is not lost. Four of those early big plays given up by Baltimore occurred on the opening drive of the game. Also, five of the nine big plays allowed were play-action passes while seven involved a receiver running a route over the middle of the field.

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith loves play action and crossers, digs, and any other in-breaking routes. So there could be an opportunity for the Falcons to strike early even against a defense as tough as the Ravens. That may come by testing injured corner Marcus Peters’ expected replacement in Brandon Stephens, especially if he’s matched up against Ridder’s favorite target: Drake London.

Yet, even if the Falcons hit on such a designed play, it doesn’t guarantee a victory on Saturday. After all, Allgeier’s 44-yard run on the opening drive against the Chargers helped the Falcons build a 10-0 first-quarter lead, yet they still found themselves in a 14-10 deficit by halftime.

But an explosive play early does help the Falcons put their best foot forward and put the Ravens on their back foot. Not to mention, retaining an early lead against Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley appears a more attainable goal than doing so against Justin Herbert.

Do you expect the Falcons to end their losing skid against the Ravens? Will it involve a faster start than usual thanks to an early explosive play?