The Falcons will close out the 2022 season on Sunday when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Bucs lead the all-time series, 30-28, and have won each of the last five meetings between the two teams, including a controversial, 21-15 game earlier this season.
While the Falcons have had an up-and-down season in 2022, they have shown promise throughout the year. This season will mark the first time in franchise history that the Falcons have had rookies as their leading rusher and leading receiver as 2022 draft picks Tyler Allgeier and Drake London have emerged as key pieces for the franchise's future.
Running into the record books
We've talked at length about the Falcons success in the run game this season. With the 2022 finale approaching, it seems fitting to do so once again, but this week we'll look at how this year's Falcons rushing attack stacks up against some of the best units in club history.
With one more game to play, Atlanta has time to move up in some of these all-time rankings, but as we're still in the midst of the awkward 'the-season-went-from-16-games-to-17-games-and-we're-not-quite-sure-how-to-handle-that' stage, this week serves as the perfect spot to examine some of these stats. Using the 'through-16-games' qualifier gives us a picture of where these numbers rank when compared to the 16-game era, which comprises most of the Falcons existence – 1978 to 2020.
The Falcons have compiled 2,544 rushing yards this season, which is the fourth-best single-season total in franchise history. This season marks the fifth time the Falcons have eclipsed 2,500 rushing yards and the first time since setting a club record with 2,939 rushing yards in 2006. This year's squad could realistically move up as high as second in team annals with 129 yards on the ground on Sunday but it would take a herculean 396 yards to top the 2006 team.
That 2006 team sure earned its spot in the record books as quarterback Michael Vick and running back Warrick Dunn each topped 1,000 yards on the ground, becoming the first quarterback-running back tandem to accomplish that feat and the fourth set of backfield teammates to do so. In addition, Vick was the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in NFL history.
The 2006 Falcons team had the 11th most rushing yards since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and was the only team to rush for more than 2,900 yards in a season between 1984 and 2019. While that unit will likely outpace the current team despite an extra game, the fact that the 2022 Falcons have put together a season of this sort in the run game despite only Allgeier having a chance to top 1,000 yards speaks to the impressive job the offense has done as a whole.
Earlier this season, Atlanta became the first team in NFL history to have four players with at least 250 rushing yards through the first eight games of a season in NFL history. Entering Week 18, the team has four players with more than 350 rushing yards on the season, averaging more than 4.8 yards per carry.
Atlanta's 4.85 yards per carry through 16 games is the third-best per-carry average in team history trailing only 2006 (5.47) and 2004 (5.10) teams.
|Year||Rush||Yards Per Carry|
Atlanta ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per carry, but they've also logged the second-most rushes in the league this season at 524, behind only the Chicago Bears (536). Among the 11 teams with at least 450 carries, Atlanta ranks third in yards per carry. Atlanta's 524 carries are its most in a season since 2008 (560) and are tied for the sixth most in franchise history.
While the Falcons have measured up well against the club's historical record books, Atlanta has been equally impressive when stacked against the rest of the NFL this season. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons have the third-highest graded offense (82.7), including the fifth-ranked run offense (90.5) and the top-graded run-blocking unit (83.3).
Individually, Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson and Caleb Huntley have all graded out above 80 as rushers according to PFF, putting all three Atlanta backs in the top 16 (min. 70 carries). The Falcons are the only team with three players in the top 16 and join Green Bay (Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon) as the only teams with multiple players with rushing grades over 83.
Atlanta has generated a 47.5 percent success rate on run plays this season, which ranks fourth in the NFL. Atlanta has the 10th-best success rate since Next Gen Stats began tracking in 2016. According to NGS, the Falcons have the ninth-most yards after contact (1,745) and the ninth-most rushes in a single season since 2016.
Nearly all of Atlanta's rushing numbers show drastic improvement over recent seasons. The Falcons have improved their yards per carry average by more than one full yard over the previous two seasons. Atlanta has rushed 1,000 more yards than it did last season. In 2021, the Falcons posted a rushing grade of 60.5 which ranked 31st in the NFL, according to PFF.
This season has been an up-and-down one for the Falcons, but the drastic improvement the team has made in the run game shows the path that it is on under head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot. While the outcomes didn't always go their way, the results – at least in the run game – show proof of concept for how they want to build this offense.
Drake London makes his mark
The Falcons passing game has taken a backseat to the running game this season. Some of that is by design. When you have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL and you lean into that by having the second-most rushing attempts in the league there simply aren't going to be as many opportunities to throw the ball. Atlanta has the second-lowest number of pass attempts in the NFL this season.
With 385 pass attempts through 16 games, the Falcons have their fewest attempts since 1982.
Atlanta has also run just 944 offensive plays, the sixth-lowest number in the league this season. On the surface, that sounds like an indictment on the passing attack, but the Falcons have been successful moving the ball. Atlanta ranks 15th in down-set conversion rate, gaining a first down or scoring a touchdown on 72.1 percent of its drives. The Falcons also average six plays, 1.94 points, and have the third-lowest percentage of three-and-out drives (15.3).
All that to say, the Falcons offense doesn't have the gaudy passing stats that have become the norm in the NFL, but the unit has been able to be efficient when throwing the ball. The passing game will certainly need to improve going forward but the foundation is being established. Much of that has to do with the play of rookie wide receiver Drake London.
London has been very consistent this season, posting five games with at least 70 yards and seven games with at least five catches. He's eclipsed 90 yards twice and has had back-to-back games with a touchdown catch twice this season.
The first round draft pick out of USC did suffer through a small dip in production in the middle of the season, but he's come on strong at the end. In December and January, London has 25 catches for 308 yards on 40 targets. He ranks second among rookies to Garrett Wilson in receptions and receiving yards during that time despite running 126 fewer routes than the Jets wideout.
London has emerged as the Falcons No. 1 receiving option over the course of the season, especially after the Falcons lost Kyle Pitts to injury. That has become even more evident since Desmond Ridder took over at quarterback. The two rookies have developed a strong connection on and off the field.
"Drake and I, we have a good friendship," Ridder said. "He's like a brother to me, and it just kind of continues out there on the field."
Over the past three games, London leads all rookies with 19 catches. He's posted the second most targets and receiving yards among rookies during that time. He's also seen a jump in his yards per route run which has risen from 1.49 yards over the first 14 weeks of the season to 2.48.
While he's come on strong at the end of the season, London has been as advertised over the course of the year. Two of his biggest strengths at USC were contested catches and yards after the catch. According to PFF, he has made 13 contested catches on 24 contested targets with 54.2 percent of his targets being contested.
London has recorded 197 yards after the catch and averages 2.98 YAC per reception. London's size, catch radius and ability after the catch were all hallmarks of his game coming out of college. That physicality has been a welcome trait to the Falcons offense.
More so, the 6-foot-4, 219-pound receiver is a willing blocker, which is a prerequisite for a team that fields an offense like that Falcons. The success of Atlanta's running game isn't just a credit to the running backs, but also the offensive line, tight ends and receivers. Both Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone are quick to remind that a play's success or failure is a result of all 11 players on the field.
London has over 100 more run-blocking snaps than any other rookie wide receiver.
According to PFF, his 365 run-blocking snaps are the ninth most among all wide receivers. He's played more snaps than any offensive player outside of offensive linemen Kaleb McGary, Chris Lindstrom, Jake Matthews and Drew Dalman. For that to be the case on a team that runs the ball as much as Atlanta does, it's clear that London is not just the team's top receiving threat, but he's also a key component to its rushing attack.
Special special teams
With two minutes remaining in the first half against Arizona last Sunday, Richie Grant burst through the line unscathed and laid out to block Andy Lee's punt, which rolled out of bounds at Arizona's five yard line. Patterson would score on the ensuing play, giving Atlanta a 14-10 lead just before halftime. Grant's blocked punt was the second of the season for the Falcons, marking the first time the team has blocked multiple punts in a season in franchise history.
The block was also the second blocked kick in the past two games for the Falcons after Ade Ogundeji blocked a Justin Tucker field goal in Week 16. Atlanta's three blocked kicks are tied with 2009 (two field goals; one punt) for the most in a season in team history.
Between Patterson's record-breaking kickoff return touchdown and Lorenzo Carter's scoop and score off of Troy Andersen's blocked punt in Week 2, the Falcons are the only team to have multiple special teams touchdowns this season.
Not only have the Falcons blocked multiple punts this year, but second-year returner Avery Williams leads the league and is on pace to set the franchise single-season punt return record with an average of 16.22 yards per return (min. 15 returns).
In the kicking game, Younghoe Koo made a game-winning field goal last week, marking his second game-winner of the season and his fifth over the past two years. Koo has now made 11-of-13 field goals in the final two minutes and overtime of games since joining the Falcons in 2019. The former Georgia Southern product's game-winner marked his 116th made field goal as a Falcon, surpassing Mick Luckhurst (115 from 1981-87) for the third-most in franchise history.
In his first season with the Falcons, Bradley Pinion has averaged 45.6 yards per punt with a net of 40.9 yards per punt and has landed 22 inside the 20 yard-line and four inside the five yard-line, including a 62-yard punt that bounced out of bounds inside the one yard-line against Arizona. Pinions' four punts inside the five are tied for the seventh-most in the NFL and third-most in the conference this year.
All in all, the special teams units have taken a big step forward in Year 2 under special teams coordinator Marquice Williams, senior assistant Steve Hoffman and football analyst Steven King. Per TruMedia, Atlanta's special teams units have an EPA of 19.89 this season - sixth best in the NFL and the Falcons best output since 2014 (23.24).
Pro Football Focus has the Falcons tied for the fifth-best special teams unit in the league with a rating of 90.2. Look for Atlanta to keep that upward trajectory going into 2023.
One final note as we wrap up the 2022 campaign. If Falcons left tackle and team captain Jake Matthews starts Sunday's game, it will mark his 144th consecutive start for Atlanta dating back to Week 3 of the 2014 season.
Matthews' 144th straight start will tie him with Falcons Ring of Honor inductee Todd McClure (144 from 2001-10) for the second-longest streak of games started in franchise history.
The guys put in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.