Nerdy Birds: Marcus Mariota, A.J. Terrell, Jake Matthews, and key stats for Week 1 clash with Saints

As you may have heard, the Falcons take on their bitter rivals, the New Orleans Saints, to open the 2022 NFL season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday. The Falcons and Saints met in Week 1 eight times dating back to 1970, and Sunday marks the first season-opening clash since 2014, a game the Falcons won 37-34 in overtime. Atlanta owns a 7-1 record in those games, including six straight wins between 1970 to 2013.

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Sunday will be the third time the Falcons and Saints have opened the season in Atlanta, the 2014 contest being the last and the first coming in 1981, another win for the home team, with the Falcons taking a 27-0 victory at Fulton County Stadium. A pattern emerges. Three season-opening games, three different stadiums, it makes you think. With the excitement building for the 2022 season and an always testy opponent, let's take a look at a few key stats for Sunday.

Dual Threat

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Since entering the league in 2015, Marcus Mariota is one of six quarterbacks with at least 13,000 passing yards (13,474) and 1,500 rushing yards (1,574) over the past six seasons. He ranks eighth among quarterbacks in rushing yards during that span, and his 5.96 yards per carry ranks second to only Lamar Jackson (5.97). The advanced stats show how Mariota's dynamic ability on both designed runs and scrambles adds a unique element to the Falcons offense. According to Tru Media, Mariota has generated 0.55 expected points added per scramble and 0.36 EPA per play on designed runs during his career. Since 2015, his 39.3 total EPA on designed runs ranks third among all quarterbacks trailing only Jackson and Cam Newton.

Mariota's ability to run may make the biggest impact on third downs. Over the course of his career, the Heisman Trophy winner has rushed for a first down on 62.7 percent of his third-down carries. Last season, nine of the top 10 teams in terms of points per drive were also top 10 in down set conversion rate, or the percentage of first downs that teams converted into another first down or a touchdown.

Essentially, the more frequently a team can extend a drive the more frequently they will score. In 2021, seven of the top 10 teams in down set conversion rate also finished with top 10 three-and-out rates. The Falcons ranked 24th in points per drive, 25th in down set conversion rate, 19th in third-down percentage, and 21st in three-and-out percentage. The Falcons ability to extend drives will have a direct correlation with their ability to score and keep the opposing offense off the field. Mariota's dual-threat talent should help the Falcons improve in these key areas.

Shutdown Lockdown

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While they may have played on different teams in 2021, no cornerback duo gave up fewer yards than Casey Hayward and A.J. Terrell. Per Pro Football Focus, they combined to allow just 588 yards last season. Among corners that played at least 400 coverage snaps, no two players allowed fewer yards per game than Terrell (12.5) and Hayward (22.8).

Terrell earned a coverage grade of 85.6 from PFF, good for second in the league behind Jalen Ramsey (86.3), while Casey Hayward's 75.0 grade ranked 19th. Terrell allowed 29 catches on 66 targets for just 6.9 yards per reception on the way to a second-team All-Pro selection. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 43.9 percent of the passes they threw his way and managed a meager 47.5 passer rating on those throws, the second-lowest mark in the NFL. Last season with the Raiders, Hayward limited opposing passers to 30 completions on 55 targets (54.5 percent) and an 81.5 quarterback rating.

Ironman Matthews

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Dating back to 2014, Jake Matthews has started 127 consecutive games for the Falcons. With a start on Sunday, Matthews will tie Keith Brooking (128 from 2000-08) for the third-longest streak of games started in Atlanta Falcons history. Matthews isn't just an ironman among the Falcons ranks though. Entering 2022, his 127 consecutive starts are the most among all active NFL players. When it comes to consecutive games played, Matthews ranks sixth among all active players and second among all non-place kickers and punters, surpassed by only former Falcon Duron Harmon (144).

Take a look as the team puts in the work at Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Saints.

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