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To unlock their offensive potential, the Falcons will need to start faster in 2023

Atlanta’s splits from the first half to the second half last year tell a story.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

We’re not used to thinking of the Falcons as a second half team, not with all the soul-snapping late collapses over the past several years, but last year that’s exactly what they were.

On only four occasions last season did the Falcons outscore their opponent in the first half; a couple of times they tied, but mostly they went into halftime trailing. Compare that to the 12 times out of 17 games where they outscored their opponents in the second half as the team got rolling, opponents let their guard down, Arthur Smith tapped into some dark magic, or whatever other factors you’d like to credit. The team gained strength as the game went on, seemingly, proving to be better in the second half of games.

That’s a half of a great thing—you want to be at your best late in games, when you can put a dagger in a tired opponent—but the other half is a problem. The Falcons have too many weapons on offense heading into this year for a repeat first half performance, and while they look like a much better team, they don’t figure to be so good that slow starts will be something they’re capable of overcoming on a weekly basis.

So the numbers suggest that the key to truly unlocking this offense’s potential doesn’t just involve connecting on more deep shots or running more effectively on early downs. To win more in 2023, the Falcons need to start faster.

Let’s explore what I mean by that, starting with the Tweet I saw yesterday that sparked this article.

My initial reaction to this was a bit of a double take. The Falcons had the best three-and-out percentage in the second half in football? It didn’t necessarily translate to victories or huge scoring drives, but it points to a certain tenacity and productivity that we did notice a year ago. After a little digging, I found that not only is it true, but the idea that this team was simply better in the second half is backed up by even a cursory glance at Atlanta’s 2022 splits.

Falcons offensive splits by half in 2022

Half Passing Yards Passing Touchdowns Average Net Yards Per Attempt Rushing Yards Rushing Touchdowns Rushing Yards Per Attempt 1st Downs
Half Passing Yards Passing Touchdowns Average Net Yards Per Attempt Rushing Yards Rushing Touchdowns Rushing Yards Per Attempt 1st Downs
1st 1,534 6 6.8 1,089 9 4.6 140
2nd 1,367 11 7.4 1,587 8 5 157

The second half Falcons outscored the first half Falcons by four touchdowns, outgained them by about 300 yards, and averaged about a yard more per play. They were noticeably more productive running the ball against tired defenses watching for the comeback, perhaps, but they also were crisper passing the ball.

That difference is not stark, but it is significant. Atlanta ranked 14th in the NFL in average scoring in the second half of games and 19th in the first half, and the .9 points per half difference over the course of the season added up to several close losses for a team that played a lot of tight games. It all gestures at a nasty habit the Falcons had in 2022: Falling behind and having to dig their way out, as I alluded to in the opener of this piece.

How does that look against the rest of the league? In 2022, the NFL average was in the same ballpark in the first three quarters, with around 4.6 yards per carry and 7.1 yards per reception before a dip drove those numbers to 3.9 yards per carry and 6.8 yards per reception in the fourth quarter. The Falcons clocked in under both those averages in the first quarter and were in the ballpark in the second quarter, but in the second half of games, Atlanta was a markedly above average rushing team and a slightly above average passing attack. In the first half, they were roughly a league average rushing attack and a below average passing team.

That’s just one year, obviously. In 2021, an arguably even less deep and talented roster was not great in the first half and brutally bad in the second half, thanks in part to a much weaker rushing attack. And it doesn’t mean it will translate over to 2023, when the Falcons have upgraded the roster significantly. But it’s worth noting that the team’s quarterback, Desmond Ridder, has a reputation as a slow starter in games borne out by his college career and his four game stint under center in Atlanta when he completed under 50% of his first quarter passes in particular. That’s a habit the Falcons will be asking him to shed in the service of faster starts, which he should be able to do with work and upgraded weapons this year. Obviously, the entire offense can be crisper in the first half of games to help ensure this team hits the ground running.

It is also worth noting that Arthur Smith’s first year in Tennessee as offensive coordinator saw the Titans display a strikingly similar pattern—albeit with a much more effective offense overall—of producing more efficiently in the second half than the first. The good news is that in 2020, Tennessee was better balanced in that regard, and with more talent and more time I don’t doubt Atlanta can put their quirky 2022 splits behind them.

The Falcons were something of an outlier as a team that was terrific in the third quarter and pretty good in the fourth quarter, as well. Had they been a better, more complete football team that didn’t fall behind when you were young, those strong second halves would’ve translated to many victories. Instead, they just made for more interesting football.

Interesting football is no longer enough for Atlanta, a team with real expectations heading into this season. Coming out of the gates strong on offense will help ensure the Falcons reach their ceiling this season, because counting on being able to catch up after slow starts even with more talent promises to be exactly the kind of fraught proposition it was in 2022.