Falcons Falling

Posted: March 26, 2014 in Football, New entries
Tags: , , , ,

Mike Smith’s 2012 13-3 Atlanta Falcons turned into a 4-12 team in 2013 with almost the same roster. The NFC South become significantly more competitive with the rebounding of the New Orleans Saints and the uprising of the Carolina Panthers among the NFC’s heavyweights. But the success of the Saints and Panthers alone doesn’t explain their downfall. In my THRILLING, FLY BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS article, you can analyze what prevented Atlanta from returning to the playoffs in 2013.

Strength of schedule

Between 2012 and 2013, no team faced a greater jump in schedule difficulty than the Atlanta Falcons. The strength of schedule jumped from .422 to .504 between 2012 and 2013 for the Falcons (metrics courtesy of bleacherreport.com). The Falcons transitioned from playing the easiest schedule of 2012 in all of football to an above average schedule in terms of difficulty in 2013. The Falcons’ only three losses in 2012 (Regular season) came to other NFC South teams. The 13-3 Falcons probably weren’t as tough as your “average” 13-3 NFL team.

Defensive collapse

In 2013, the Falcons failed to stop the run, allowing 135.8 rushing yards per game, good for second to last in the league for run defense. The Falcons also ranked in the bottom five in the NFL for team sacks and team interceptions. The majority of the Falcons’ starters on defense played healthy for 15 or more games. Asante Samuel was the lone defensive starter to miss five games (Samuel’s since been cut from the team). The Falcons defense didn’t struggle because of injury, it struggled because it wasn’t built to handle the NFL’s fiercest runners and passing offenses. They likely leaned too heavily on Asante Samuel when he isn’t the same player he used to be. Atlanta previously masked a struggling defense behind a high scoring passing offense, but the challenges in the 2013 season made that unfeasible for Mike Smith. Atlanta will have an opportunity to take one of the draft’s elite defenders like Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr in May.

Running game downgrade instead of upgrade

In 2012, Michael Turner led a weak rushing attack for Atlanta. Turner had performed at a high level as a backup to LT in San Diego and as a starter in Atlanta for many years, but in 2012 his wheels fell off. Steven Jackson came to Atlanta in 2013 to be his replacement, and to improve on 2012’s rushing performance. Instead Jackson got injured and Atlanta’s rushing attack struggled even more in 2013. One-dimensional offenses are naturally easy to defend. And the Falcons offense had been slowed by injury.

Injuries

Devastating injuries to key players on the Falcons’ offense shelved their chances of being a strong team in 2013. Julio Jones, the crown jewel of the Falcons’ offense, went down early in the season putting a wrench in the Falcons’ plans to return to the postseason. Starting WR Roddy White also faced injuries and produced under 800 yards receiving on the season. Starting LT Sam Baker only played 4 games after receiving a long term contract for the team. Starting RB Steven Jackson went down with injury.

Lessons learned

When teams draft for depth instead of star power, place value on defense, and attract players who can stay healthy they set themselves up for success. Mike Smith will have a more competitive NFC South to play against in 2014, but a strong draft class and returning healthy starters should make the team relevant again.

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