The Atlanta Falcons aren’t your everyday 1-5 team. They’re two epic collapses away from being 3-2, they’ve got some of the best offensive weapons in the entire league, and they’re coming off a seriously impressive performance in Week 6.
But don’t get it twisted, there are some serious flaws in this team, too. Their 0-5 start wasn’t just bad luck or bad coaching. They were well-earned losses. And as a result, this is a team that is now simply going to be drifting to the finish line. With an interim head coach and general manager, the real focus is on 2021. While the players will still be playing for this year, the season is pretty much already dead for the Falcons.
Will the Lions be able to take advantage, though? Let’s take a closer look at the 2020 Atlanta Falcons.
7-9 record (2nd in NFC South)
13th in points scored, 23rd in points allowed
Overall DVOA: 15th (15th on offense, 17th on defense)
Just about everything from the 2019 Atlanta Falcons was average: their overall record, their point differential, their DVOA rankings. Similar to how this season has played out, the Falcons dug themselves into a hole early in the season that they were never going to climb out of. They started the season 1-7, but were able to win six of their last eight game, giving them some hope going into the 2020 season.
It’s hard to figure out just what went wrong in the first half of the season and what went right down the stretch. It wasn’t a case of injuries, as the Falcons were among the most healthy teams in 2019. They did shift around some coaching duties toward the end of last season, so that may have helped.
Key free agent additions: WR Laquon Treadwell, RB Todd Gurley, TE Hayden Hurst, LB Dante Fowler Jr.
Key losses: RB Devonta Freeman, TE Austin Hooper, DE Adrian Clayborn, LB De’Vondre Campbell, LB Vic Beasley, CB Desmond Trufant
2020 NFL draft picks:
Round 1: CB A.J. Terrell
Round 2: DT Marlon Davidson
Round 3: C Matt Hennessy
Round 4: LB Mykal Walker
Round 4: S Jaylinn Hawkins
Round 7: Sterling Hofrichter
With limited cap space, the Falcons did a little more unloading that addition this offseason. The releases of Freeman, Trufant and reserve tackle Ty Sambrailo freed up over $12 million in cap space, and they put it to fairly good use. Dante Fowler Jr. was coming off an 11.5-sack season with the Rams, while Gurley and Hurst were solid replacements for Freeman and Hooper.
Still, this offseason felt more like treading water than improving for this Falcons team. Considering their draft capital was also quite underwhelming, it’s hard to look at this team as any better on paper than where they were last year.
2020 season thus far (1-5)
- 13th in points scored, 28th in points allowed
- 23rd in DVOA: 22nd on offense, 25th on defense, 22nd on special teams
Early in the season, the story for the Falcons was simply blowing games late. They were up 15 on the Cowboys with under eight minutes remaining, and if they had just recovered an easy onside kick, they walk away comfortable winners. The following week, they were up 16 with nine minutes remaining, but then allowed three straight touchdown drives while responding with two three-and-outs on offense.
But don’t be fooled by that. This isn’t a good Falcons team. Defensive speaking, they’re one of the worst in the league, especially against the pass (30th in DVOA). They rank dead last in:
- Passing touchdowns allowed (18)
- Passer rating allowed (114.1)
- Yards per attempt allowed (8.6)
Now this all comes with the caveat that they’ve played against Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers thus far, but when you allow the Chicago Bears to score three passing touchdowns in the final seven minutes (why does that sound familiar?), you’re not a good defense.
Offensively speaking, it’s all about Matt Ryan. When he plays well, the Falcons have a chance. When he doesn’t, they don’t. Part of the reason for that is the team’s lack of a running game. Todd Gurley is playing fairly well (70.3 rushing yards per game, 4.3 YPC), but as a team they’re rushing for just 4.0 YPC, and they rank 26th in run offense DVOA.
A big reason for the inconsistencies for Ryan is simply the availability of Julio Jones. Check out his splits with and without the star receiver:
With Julio Jones (3.5 games): 69.9% completion percentage, 8.2 Y/A, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 114.3 passer rating
Without Julio Jones (2.5 games): 58.2% completion percentage, 6.6 Y/A, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 73.1 passer rating
Again, those number come with a caveat. The two full games the Falcons didn’t have Julio Jones, they played two of the toughest defenses in the league: the Bears (2nd in pass defense DVOA) and the Panthers (13th). Still, that different is drastic and unlikely coincidental.
Of course, the bigger story of the 2020 Falcons is the big changes already made. After their Week 5 loss to the Panthers, Atlanta fired head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, signaling the start of what will likely be a significant rebuild. The futures of this franchise—Matt Ryan included—hang in the balance in 2021.
For now, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris is running the show as interim head coach.
- IR: CB Darqueze Dennard, S Damontae Kazee
- Current injuries: DE Takkarist McKinley (groin), S Jaylinn Hawkins (concussion)
Aside from the big Julio Jones situation, this team hasn’t been bitten too hard from the injury bug. Their already weak secondary, however, has taken some hits with Dennard and Kazee already hitting the injured reserve list.
For now, the biggest question is the availability of 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley, who has been battling a groin injury since Week 3. He tried to play in Week 5 only to aggravate it, and he’s been out since. He was limited in practice last week, so he has the potential of playing this week.
Though McKinley hasn’t quite lived up to his draft billing, he’s still one of the better pass rushers on the team. Thus far, Atlanta only has eight sacks in six games, however their pass rush win rate remains quite high—fifth in the league (51%).
Biggest strength: Offensive weapons
Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones and Hayden Hurst are a pretty difficult trio to defend. Ridley is currently fourth in the NFL in receiving yards, and he’s done it on fewer receptions than the three receivers ranked above him.
Julio Jones showed how big of a difference maker he is, destroying the Vikings secondary last week to the tune of eight catches, 137 yards and two scores.
Biggest weakness: Secondary
The best player in the Falcons secondary right now is first-round rookie A.J. Terrell, who has played well, all things considered. The rest of the cupboard, however, is quite bare. With no Dennard, the Falcons are turning to 2019 fourth-round pick Kendall Sheffield, who currently holds a 32.8 PFF grade. Expect the Lions to try and pick on him Sunday.
Vegas line for Sunday: Falcons by 2.5