The Atlanta Falcons' Offense Could Be Built to Last
The Atlanta Falcons had a day on offense in Week 4.
They gained 571 total yards and blew out the team that was expected to be the favorite in the NFC South -- and last year's NFC champion -- the Carolina Panthers. They got there with monster days from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the two players who are going to have to have big days in order for the Falcons to have days like this.
While not to this extent, the Falcons have been having days like this all season. Heading into Sunday’s game against the Panthers, the Falcons were already the best offense in the league by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.
Atlanta was first in Adjusted NEP per play on offense through the first three weeks of the season with a bigger gap between them and the Oakland Raiders at number two than between the Raiders and New England Patriots at 11th. That gap will likely only increase because the Panthers were our seventh-ranked defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play heading into the game.
We’ve seen some of this before -- remember the Falcons were 7-0 to start last season -- but even that early-season version of the team wasn’t as successful as this one. Atlanta might not be this dominant for the rest of the season, but there’s a good chance the Falcons can stay as one of the league’s best offenses throughout the year.
Airing It Out
It’s hard to talk about what the Falcons have done on offense during the season without first diving into how impressive Sunday’s performance was. Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards, which was the 19th 500-yard passing day in the NFL, and that yardage total ties him with Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers for 17th place for a single game. Ryan’s game was also one of the most efficient 500-yard games in NFL history.
Ryan got to the 503-yard total on just 37 pass attempts. That’s the second-fewest attempts needed to eclipse 500 passing yards and just one of three to do so on fewer than 40 attempts. Tony Romo’s 506-yard day on 36 attempts in 2013 is at the top, with Y.A. Title’s 505-yard game on 39 attempts in 1962 following behind. Only 10 of the 500-yard passing games also feature a 10.0-plus yards per attempt performance and Ryan’s 13.59 yards per attempt again ranks second behind Romo’s 14.06.
After four weeks, Ryan now leads the league in yards per attempt at 10.5. That’s incredible -- but probably not a number that is sustainable. Last year, Carson Palmer led the league with 8.7 yards per attempt in a vertical-heavy offense.
There hasn’t been a full season with at least 10.0 yards per attempt since Norm Van Brocklin in 1954, and he only attempted 260 passes, which also included 21 interceptions. Ryan has some room for regression with the ability still to rank as one of the top passers in the league.
Ryan headed into the week ranked second in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks, behind Jimmy Garoppolo (0.48). After a day that saw Ryan worth an incredible 0.70 Passing NEP per drop back, Ryan is now at 0.50 on the season.
While being efficient, Ryan also held the lead in total Passing NEP as well as Success Rate, which is the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP. His lead in both of those categories will not be lost. He’s been successful on 57.8 percent of his drop backs this season, and Eli Manning is the next closest at 55.8 percent heading into Monday night’s game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ryan’s performance this year is that it hadn’t heavily relied on the presence of Julio Jones -- at least until this week.
Mr. Jones and Me
Heading into Week 4, Jones was targeted on just 20 of Ryan’s 103 passing attempts. That all changed on Sunday when Jones was targeted on 15 of Ryan’s 37 attempts. Those 15 targets resulted in 12 catches, a touchdown, and 300 yards, the sixth 300-yard receiving game in NFL history.
Even without high volume for most of the season, Jones was one of the league’s most productive receivers. He was 16th in Reception NEP per target (0.89) heading into Week 4 among receivers with 15 or more targets, and he’ll move up those rankings after being worth 1.68 Reception NEP per target on Sunday.
Jones was able to make some incredible catches from Ryan that weren’t particularly on target, but for much of the game the two were in sync and it helped that Carolina’s corners couldn’t stay with Jones down the field. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)
What also made Jones’ day so impressive is that all 12 of his receptions were considered a success. Heading into Week 4, there were 10 receivers to have at least 10 receptions and a 100 percent Success Rate. Five of them, including Jones, were able to keep that streak intact after playing on Sunday.
However, the highest reception total of that group outside of Jones was Mike Wallace with four. Kelvin Benjamin had three receptions while DeAndre Hopkins and Willie Snead each had one. Dez Bryant is also among those with a 100 percent Success Rate, but he did not play on Sunday.
With 22 receptions, Jones now has the highest reception total with a 100 percent Success Rate, though his lead in that category is pending the performance of Stefon Diggs on Monday night. Diggs has 20 receptions this season, all of which have been a success.
Can This Last?
Atlanta has ranked well on offense in the beginning of the season for many reasons. Ryan and Jones are hitting their stride together, but the rest of the offense has been clicking too. The Falcons also had the second-best rushing offense by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play heading into Week 4. Now, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman only combined for 76 yards on the ground on Sunday, but when the quarterback is throwing for more than 500 yards, there’s really no need for a high-volume running game.
The offense is also well-rounded in the passing game. While Ryan was going to Jones quite often, the star receiver was one of nine Falcons with a reception on Sunday and one of 10 with a target -- Levine Toilolo was the lone targeted receiver without a catch.
The success stems from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has been calling some good games through the first quarter of the season. He’s had some well-timed play calls, like the 42-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper, who snuck out of the right side on a play-action pass to be wide open down the left sideline.
Through the first four games, the Falcons haven’t exactly been tested by top defenses. Atlanta opened up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders, and New Orleans Saints, who entered Week 4 ranked 23rd, 29th and 30th, respectively, in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
The next few weeks will give the Falcons a big test on the sustainability of this offense. Over the next two weeks, Atlanta will play the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks on the road, both top-10 defenses this season.
Atlanta already has a two-game advantage in the NFC South with the three other teams in the division all at 1-3. The Falcons stumbled after a hot start last season, but even at 7-0, they never performed as well as they have through four games in 2016.
We shouldn’t expect this exact type of output for the next 12 games of the season, but right now, it should be safe to say this Falcons team is the real deal.