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The Falcons’ Offense Is Back. Too Bad Their Defense Isn’t.

Going into this season, the biggest questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons had to do with the team’s inexplicably anemic offense under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian in 2017. So if somebody had told you that, through four weeks, Atlanta would be averaging 29 points per game in 2018 — about a touchdown more than last year — and that Matt Ryan would once again rank among the league’s most efficient quarterbacks, you might have assumed that the Falcons were back to their high-flying, Super Bowl form of a few seasons ago.

Unfortunately, things haven’t exactly followed that script so far. Instead, Atlanta is 1-3 and ranks last in the NFC South, a division it was a co-favorite to win before the season. Now our Elo projections have the Falcons on pace to finish 8-8 with just a 33 percent chance of making the playoffs. The reason is easy to pinpoint: Just as Atlanta’s offense has returned to greatness, its defense has deteriorated completely, giving away all of the gains made by an offensive attack that looks genuinely scary again. The end result could be another wasted Falcons season — and Ryan might not have many more of those left before his prime ends.

Defensively, the Falcons have never been the most fearsome outfit under coach Dan Quinn, who made his name as an architect of the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Atlanta ranked 25th in defensive expected points added (EPA) even while they nearly won it all in 2016.1 However, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel had the unit performing better last season, his first year at the helm. Aided by breakout second-year defenders Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, Atlanta was much better up front against the run and applied more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, upping its adjusted sack rate from 5.4 percent to 6.6 percent.

In terms of defensive EPA, the Falcons improved from 25th to 18th a year ago — modest but encouraging progress. This season, though, they’ve fallen down to 30th, including 28th against the pass and 31st against the run. Early long-term injuries to both Jones and Neal robbed Atlanta of two Pro Bowl playmakers, and few of the remaining regulars have impressed. According to ProFootballFocus.com, eight of the Falcons’ nine veteran starters grade out worse in 2018 than in 2017, with DB Damontae Kazee standing out as the lone exception. By Football Outsiders’ calculations, the Falcons’ front seven have allowed the NFL’s sixth-most adjusted line yards per carry, and they also have the sixth-worst adjusted sack rate of any team.

The result has been a defense letting up a staggering 30.5 points per game — including 43 in an overtime loss to the Saints in Week 3 and 37 in a last-second defeat against Cincinnati this past Sunday.

The cruel irony is that even a repeat of last year’s mediocre-but-not-terrible defensive showing would have worked wonders for the Falcons in concert with their rejuvenated offense. Although stellar wideout Julio Jones still can’t find the end zone (he somehow has only three TD catches in his past 20 games, including zero so far this year), Ryan has been much more efficient throwing the ball than he was last season, and rookie receiver Calvin Ridley (who has six TD grabs already) appears to have emerged as the complementary threat Atlanta has been trying to line up across from Jones for years. The Falcons’ running game isn’t what it used to be — leading rusher Tevin Coleman is averaging only 3.9 yards per carry2 — which in turn has often left Atlanta in unfavorable down-and-distance situations. But the team’s big-play potential in undeniable. The trouble is, opponents have been able to say the same thing all too often.

What might be most frustrating for Atlanta is that each season it fails to sync up a great offense with a serviceable defense is one fewer year left in Ryan’s prime. He’s the best player in franchise history — but at age 33, he won’t be able to play at an elite level forever. Although we’ve seen a number of recent passers (such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees) remain hyper-productive into their late 30s and beyond, the historical aging curve for QBs sees a rapid decline after Ryan’s current age. That’s why, among the 20 QBs most similar to Ryan last season (according to my modification of Football Outsiders’ similarity scores), the average retired member of the list3 had just 3.4 seasons left in his career as an NFL starter — and that’s including the equivalent of Ryan’s 2018 campaign.

With the window to capitalize on Ryan’s greatness closing faster than you might think, the Falcons’ disappointing start is an even greater concern. Of course, below-market QB contracts are seen as the formula for success in 2018, so some of the Falcons’ defensive struggles do come back to Ryan’s own record-setting contract preventing the team from stockpiling the rest of the roster with talent. But if Atlanta can’t find some way to right the ship, it could have serious negative implications for the best sustained era in franchise history.

All of which brings us to Week 5, when the Falcons will face the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. It’s a game our Elo model considers the third-most important of the week (by the potential swing in playoff odds) and fourth-best overall in terms of matchup quality — despite the two teams’ combined 2-5-1 record to begin the year.

The best matchups of Week 5

Week 5 games with the highest average Elo rating, using the harmonic mean, plus the total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff Chance Playoff Chance
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
JAX 66.2% +/-10.2 KC 94.0% +/-4.1 14.3 1605
MIN 34.7 10.9 PHI 68.9 10.3 21.2 1580
LAR 83.1 10.0 SEA 44.0 16.1 26.1 1574
ATL 32.6 11.3 PIT 29.0 11.2 22.5 1556
NO 61.8 10.7 WSH 31.3 10.5 21.2 1542
CIN 57.7 14.2 MIA 48.7 13.9 28.0 1504
BUF 18.4 8.5 TEN 62.4 12.5 21.0 1498
IND 6.4 3.1 NE 66.2 7.0 10.1 1497
DET 18.4 9.0 GB 32.2 13.1 22.1 1488
LAC 42.0 11.0 OAK 5.1 3.9 14.9 1477
CAR 53.5 8.4 NYG 4.3 2.7 11.1 1475
DAL 37.8 10.9 HOU 6.4 3.8 14.7 1450
BAL 71.9 9.4 CLE 1.5 1.4 10.8 1441
DEN 15.8 8.3 NYJ 8.3 4.5 12.9 1433
ARI 1.3 1.3 SF 16.0 6.6 7.9 1429

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN.com

Pittsburgh is another team that’s disappointed so far, starting the season 1-2-1 after its Sunday night loss to the archrival Baltimore Ravens. Unlike the Falcons, the Steelers haven’t really been able to figure things out on offense without star RB Le’Veon Bell, dropping from third in offensive EPA to 16th. But with each team’s playoff odds rapidly dwindling, this game could represent something of a last stand for both clubs. The Steelers, currently sitting at 29 percent playoff probability, could see their chances drop to a mere 16 percent if they lose to Atlanta (they’d go up to 39 percent with a win). And the Falcons would fall to 23 percent with a loss — or, conversely, could build themselves back up to a respectable 46 percent playoff probability with a win.

That’s still behind where Atlanta was at the start of the year (59 percent). But it would go a long way toward salvaging the season — and helping the Falcons actually capitalize on the great offensive performance they’re getting from Ryan and Co.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

On top of our NFL Elo prediction interactive, which updates after every game to help you keep tabs on the league’s pecking order, we also offer a prediction game, in which you can pick against our model (and your fellow readers). Each week, we take a look at where Elo made its best — and worst — picks against the field, so here’s how it did in Week 4:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 4

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 4 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
IND 67% IND 57% HOU 37, IND 34 +9.8
GB 53 GB 67 GB 22, BUF 0 +8.8
ATL 68 ATL 63 CIN 37, ATL 36 +4.1
PIT 63 PIT 58 BAL 26, PIT 14 +4.0
LAC 68 LAC 76 LAC 29, SF 27 +2.4
SEA 57 SEA 62 SEA 20, ARI 17 +2.3
KC 65 KC 69 KC 27, DEN 23 +0.4
NO 65 NO 67 NO 33, NYG 18 -0.4
JAX 74 JAX 75 JAX 31, NYJ 12 -1.1
LAR 65 LAR 66 LAR 38, MIN 31 -1.5
CHI 53 CHI 52 CHI 48, TB 10 -3.2
NE 70 NE 64 NE 38, MIA 7 -6.7
PHI 60 PHI 65 TEN 26, PHI 23 -8.8
DAL 62 DAL 51 DAL 26, DET 24 -12.2
OAK 71 OAK 52 OAK 45, CLE 42 -17.5

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Elo capped off a surprisingly strong first month of the season with another solid week, beating the average reader by 19.6 points. Although the field was right to doubt Indianapolis at home against Deshaun Watson and the Texans, and correctly brushed off Buffalo’s bizarre thrashing of Minnesota to call a Bills loss at Green Bay, Elo picked up big points with home wins for the Cowboys and Raiders. Now the average reader is down a whopping 154 points to Elo for the season as a whole — time to pick it up, folks!

Congrats to reader Shaun Anderson, who led all users in points for Week 4, and to Scott Duhaime, who leads all (identified) users on the season in total. Thanks to everyone who played last week — and if you didn’t play, it’s not too late to get in on the game. You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you missed the first month of the season.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. They made up for it that season with the league’s top overall offense and a top-10 special teams corps.

  2. Regular starter Devonta Freeman has been out since Week 1 with an injury, so things should improve some when he returns.

  3. So, excluding currently active QBs such as Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers because we don’t know how many years they have left as starters.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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