The Atlanta Falcons offense has a plethora of problems, none of them unfamiliar to you. Desmond Ridder has turned the ball over repeatedly and at the worst moments and has now been benched, the ground game has been vaguely unsatisfying given the talent on hand, the line has long stretches where it either cannot or will not block effectively, and nothing is working as well as it should as often as we’d like it to. We could—and we have!—spent days talking about what a mess all of that is.
This week, though, I’d like to zero in on an underappreciated factor for the team’s lack of success. The Falcons have struggled to score not just because of red zone woes or untimely turnovers, though that’s obviously an ongoing and major part of the problem. They’re also struggling because they have the worst starting field position in the NFL, as their average is the 25.7 yard line. That’s tied with the Cardinals, and if that number stood all season long, it would be tied for the worst average starting field position in the last five years with the 2021 Jaguars.
I don’t need to tell you that a struggling offense does not need that, so it’s yet another issue this Falcons team needs to clear up. What’s less clear on first glance is what could be driving that, because a better Falcons defense should be forcing punts from deeper in Atlanta’s territory in theory, giving the team better field position. That’s clearly not what’s happening.
Let’s break this down real quick. If you’re looking for drive-by-drive summaries, you can check out the Google Sheet I pulled together for every game thus far. Scoring drives of any kind are highlighted in green. What you’ll notice is:
- Drives that start inside the 25, which is the kickoff touchback marker, are basically doomed. The Falcons have 13 points in eight games when their drives start inside the 25; that’s 34 of their 91 drives, or over a third, and Atlanta is averaging just .7 points per drive. That would be the worst mark in the league if it held across all drives, beating out the putrid Giants, who are sitting at .95. Atlanta’s average on their 57 drives that start on or past the 25 is 1.8 points per drive, a mark that would put them at 17th in the league. When you combine those numbers together for all drives, they’re 25th in points per drive at 1.53. Atlanta’s also averaging 30 yards per drive, which is down from last year but still good for 16th in the NFL; they are not punching those long drives in.
- This is not great compared even to 2022, where the Falcons had an average starting field position of 27.7 yards (23rd in the NFL), covered an average of 32.3 yards per drive (13th), and scored an average of 2 points per drive (14th). Hell, compare it to 2021, where the Falcons average starting field position was their own 28.5 (18th), they covered 29.1 yards per drive (25th), and averaged 1.68 points per drive (25th, but better than this year). The last two years, the Falcons had less distance to cover, and while the offense certainly looked better for stretches last year, it was emphatically not better in 2021. They just didn’t have as far to go to boot a field goal.
- You can’t untangle the offensive performances from those woes, given that Ridder has turned the ball over in the red zone on what would have otherwise been long scoring drives on multiple occasions. That doesn’t change Atlanta’s starting field position in the slightest, but those turnovers have dragged down the per-drive scoring average, which otherwise would likely be close to league average. It’s worth noting, of course, that this offense should be able to turn long fields into points far more often than they do, given the talent on hand. We’ll see if we see positive regression with Taylor Heinicke under center.
Contrast that to what’s happening on the other side of the ball. Thanks in part to offensive ineptitude, thanks in part to some less-than-stellar coverage work on returns, the Falcons are the 12th-worst team in terms of allowed starting field position, at 29.5 yards. That’s nearly four full yards on average that opposing offenses are starting ahead of where Atlanta is starting, yet they’re holding opposing offenses to an average of 1.69 points per drive. Considering circumstances and how much work they’re having to put in, that’s yeoman’s work, even with last week’s performance.
So what’s behind Atlanta’s poor starting field position on offense? There are four major factors.
- Fine work from opposing punters. Ryan Stonehouse killed the Falcons in particular for the Titans last week, but when the Falcons have been letting these bounce, they’ve been good boots with heads-up special teamers downing them deep in Atlanta territory, or they’ve been (unwisely, at times) caught inside the 20. Stonehouse put five punts inside the 15 last Sunday, while opposing punters have pinned the Falcons deep on out of bounds, downed, or fair caught punts 12 other times this year. There’s some poor decision-making in the mix there in terms of when to let the ball bounce versus not, but that’s nearly 20% of your drives right there.
- Awful returns and awful decision-making. I don’t like to pick on any one player overmuch, but Mike Hughes has on multiple occasions refused to let the ball bounce, making fair catches inside the 10 yard line or trying for hilariously ill-advised kick (early in the season) and punt (as recently as last week) returns that leave the Falcons with terrible field position. This will get better with Cordarrelle Patterson back fielding kicks and the team possibly switching to Scotty Miller or Dee Alford on punts, but those catastrophic returns have certainly dragged Atlanta’s average down. In total, six of Atlanta’s drives have started inside the 20 owing to lousy kick and punt returns, and that small number doesn’t account for the number of returns past the 20 that have gone for just a yard or two. A striking statistic I had to add here: Avery Williams averaged 16.2 yards per punt return in 2022, while the Falcons as a team (mostly Hughes) are averaging 5.5 yards per return in 2023.
- The Falcons getting a handful of big stops deep in Atlanta’s own territory. They’ve made three such stops this season, all of them inside the Falcon 12 yard line. I’m not going to complain about that, though.
- Plenty of touchbacks on kick returns. A total of 31 of Atlanta’s 91 drives have started at the 25 exactly, owing to booming kicks and a conscious and obvious decision by Marquice Williams and the special teams staff to not have Mike Hughes field kickoffs after he averaged just 15 yards on three returns in Weeks 2 and 3. With Cordarrelle Patterson back, he’s starting to take some of those out, with a much healthier (though still not superlative) 22.3 yards per return average on four returns.
- Finally, a lack of turnovers. The Falcons defense has been excellent at bending without breaking and forcing plenty of punts, but they have just seven turnovers on the year, which is 27th in the NFL. The big plays that fueled gimme chances for the Falcons have been sporadic, with four coming in the first three games and the remaining three coming in the last two. The defense has been the better unit by far, but creating more turnovers will help where the offense starts, obviously.
Some of this will get better, if not all of it, thanks to personnel changes and simple luck. Atlanta has two of the worst punting teams in the league on deck in Arizona and Minnesota, and Patterson’s ability as a returner should start to give the Falcons more favorable positioning on kickoffs. Shifting away from Hughes as a punt returner—or at least getting him to make better decisions in terms of when he’s trying his luck—should also provide at least a minor boost. If Atlanta can create more turnovers, this number will jump and their opportunities to score will be more frequent. The Falcons are basically doing everything wrong on some level this year, and even modest, attainable improvement will have this team looking more like the squad we expected them to be.
What’s clear is that it has to change. Atlanta’s overmatched offense has been the biggest disappointment of the 2023 season for the Falcons and one of the larger disappointments leaguewide, even in a year where offensive numbers are depressed. They’ve shown us again and again that the longer they have to go to score, the more potential there is for something to go awry. A quarterback switch to Taylor Heinicke may drive improvement and I continue to think the Falcons have enough talent to snap out of their current malaise, but they desperately need things that have been breaking wrong all season to break right. Field position is isn’t the most important piece of the puzzle—that would be getting this offense moving and avoiding turnovers—but it’s one that should make a difference.