Atlanta Falcons 2013 Team Review: Truly Offensive Defense

The offense kept humming along for the Falcons, but the other side of the ball needs some work.

Since Mike Smith took over as head coach in 2008, the Atlanta Falcons went on a streak of five straight winning seasons, something the team had never done before in franchise history.

In fact, they had never had two straight winning seasons in franchise history before 2008 and 2009.

So while many Falcons fans may be distraught over a losing season in 2013, it’s easy to forget just how far the franchise has come since hiring Smith. The roster might not be loaded with talent, but the pieces are in place to get right back into the playoff hunt in 2014.

The Good

Things weren’t all bad for the Falcons in 2013. In fact, the offense was on par with previous seasons under Mike Smith.

Here at numberFire, we use Net Expected Points to help evaluate players and teams. NEP measures how many expected points a player or team earns or loses by their actions. You can learn more about the metric here.

For 2013, the Falcons finished with an Adjusted (for strength of schedule) Offensive NEP total of 102.06. So what does that mean? That it falls in line with what the Falcons have done over the past few seasons.

The top four offensive outputs in team history prior to 2013 were four of Smith’s five years in charge. These range from 2009, when the Falcons finished with an Adjusted NEP of 98.65 to 2010 when they posted a total Adjusted NEP of 123.09.

So 2013’s numbers are right in the middle of the pack, and that should be extremely encouraging for Falcon fans.

How did such a bad team earn such a strong offensive ranking? The continued solid play from their receivers is the main factor. Despite the loss of Julio Jones, the Falcons still got a lot from their wide outs and tight end.

Tony Gonzalez ended the season as the second-best tight end in terms of Reception NEP, too, which translated to 22nd among all pass catchers.

But Tony is a legend, and that sort of performance is expected. It was the contributions of Harry Douglas and a seemingly always-injured Roddy White which helped keep the Falcons’ offense afloat.

Douglas was among the 25th-most targeted pass catcher in the NFL, and turned that into the 28th-best Reception NEP total.

White wasn’t targeted as often, mainly due to his injury concerns, but he did more on a per target basis than Douglas, and proved why he’s one of the most underrated wide receivers in the league. A healthy Roddy White will be someone to keep an eye on in 2014.

And while Matt Ryan posted a good enough Passing NEP total to say he wasn’t awful, he’ll wind up on both sides of the ledger here. He’s a part of “what went right” because he wasn’t bad, which is a testament to his ability considering the injury concerns his team was facing.

But let’s take a look at what went wrong to see why Ryan was a part of the problem as well as being a bright spot for Atlanta.

The Bad

Since Julio Jones entered the NFL, Matt Ryan has finished with a Passing NEP of 95 or higher in each of his three seasons. Prior to Julio’s arrival, Ryan posted Passing NEP totals of 89.16 as a rookie, and 49.36 as a second-year player.

In 2013, Ryan regressed back to his sophomore slump numbers.

Ryan finished the season with a Passing NEP of 53.16, by far lower than any of his seasons with Julio Jones healthy.

Ryan’s numbers were good enough to finish in the top half of the NFL among starting quarterbacks, but that wasn’t good enough for the Falcons, who needed Ryan to continue his dominance even without his most dangerous downfield weapon.

But in all honesty, Ryan did enough to at least sustain a winning season for Atlanta. The real problem came from the defense. And when I say problem, I mean cataclysmic disaster.

Since 2000, the Falcons have never posted a defensive NEP as poor as the one they earned in 2013. In fact, only two teams since the turn of the century have ever had a worse Adjusted Defensive NEP than the 2013 Falcons.

An Adjusted Defensive NEP of 144.55 (positive numbers are bad for defenses, as that means they allowed offenses to gain expected points on a regular basis) for Atlanta this past year is more than three times worse than their previous low point under Mike Smith , which they posted during his first season in charge in 2008. And while the Falcons made the playoffs in 2008 thanks to a solid offense, the combination of a disastrous defensive effort in 2013 with a slightly worse offense meant the Falcons couldn’t recreate the magic that earned them a playoff berth in Smith’s first year.

What Should They Do?

For the Falcons, the road back to relevance is short and quick. Drafting an impact player early in the 2014 NFL Draft will help shore up either their offensive line or defensive line.

Combined with a return to health for Julio Jones and an offseason of rest for Roddy White, the Falcons should be back in business in 2014 without much trouble at all.

Fixing up the defense will be key for Atlanta, but Mike Smith made a living coaching defenses before he was appointed head coach for the Dirty Birds. So his current job depends on his ability to turn around one of the worst defenses in NFL history, and turning them into something remotely mediocre and capable of winning games with a solid offense.

Matt Ryan has a lot to prove in 2014, as well, despite his decent performance last year. He showed weakness when left without his key weapons, and he has to bounce back from that in what will be his first season with Tony Gonzalez since he was a rookie (assuming he really does retire this time).

But as long as Ryan can produce without his favorite tight end, and provided that Mike Smith remembers how to coach a defense, the Falcons should be right back in the thick of things in the NFC next season.