FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons are turning back the clock to the 90s for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The theme will permeate the look and feel of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and while the uniforms might not be period correct, we can all agree the Falcons never need an excuse to wear their throwback uniforms and red helmets.
We're admittedly biased, but they are the best uniform in sports.
Atlanta enters Sunday's game at 5-7 and will need to do something its rarely done in order to keep its playoff hopes alive. The Falcons have played the Steelers 16 times dating back to 1966, with Pittsburgh owning a 14-2-1 record in the all-time series. Atlanta has lost its last three games against Pittsburgh and last came away with a win in 2006 with a 41-38 victory at the Georgia Dome.
The two teams tied in 2002, but prior to that Pittsburgh's winning streak lasted from 1974 through 1999. Granted the two teams only play each other once every four years, but the Falcons will be looking to exercise some historical demons on Sunday. A win will also give them one over each of the Steelers last three most recent coaches.
In honor of the Falcons throwing it back to the 90s for Sunday's game, we decided to do the same for this week's first note.
History repeats itself... Sort of
Before we dive into the numbers, we need to set the scene with a little history lesson. In 1990, the Falcons hired head coach Jerry Glanville, the architect of the infamous 'Grits Blitz' defense that set an NFL record for the fewest points allowed in 1977. As Glanville came to Atlanta with a defensive background he looked for an offensive coordinator who would bring a similarly aggressive and brash style to that side of the ball. He decided to bring in his former quarterbacks coach, June Jones, and the vaunted 'run-and-shoot' offense.
The run-and-shoot or 'red gun,' as it was sometimes referred to in Atlanta, was built around teams using 10 personnel, one running back, and four wide receivers. It relied on speedy wideouts and bigger, bruising running backs. The scheme employed heavy usage of motion to create mismatches and try to get the defense to reveal whether they were playing man or zone coverage. It also utilized a number of 'choice' or 'option' routes where the receiver can change the route initially called depending on how the defense is playing them.
The use of four wide receivers would often cause defenses to counter by subbing off bigger linebackers for smaller defensive backs, thus creating mismatches for the larger running backs.
While the run-and-shoot Falcons certainly didn't shy away from running the ball during this era, it was a decidedly more pass-heavy offense. That's not where history repeats itself, though. It's coming.
In the years under Glanville, Atlanta kept things more balanced, throwing the ball 58 percent of the time from 1990 to 1993. Despite making the playoffs in 1991, Glanville proved prophetic when he coined the now famous phrase 'Not For Long,' as he was replaced by Jones as head coach in 1994 after consecutive 6-10 seasons in 1992 and 1993.
Jones would cut things loose in the passing game. He let the quarterbacks cook in modern parlance. Atlanta's passing rate would jump to 66 percent in 1994 and hit 64 and 65 percent respectively in the next two seasons. And here is where the connection to the 2022 team lies.
Eric Metcalf was the reverse Cordarrelle Patterson.
Metcalf was the 13th overall pick, and the fourth running back selected, in the first round of the 1989 NFL draft. He played the first six seasons of his career in Cleveland where he made the Pro Bowl twice as a kick returner. He returned five punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Cleveland but never really found his footing as a ball carrier. The 5-10, 188-pounder served in more of a scat-back role, never having more than 633 rushing yards in a season, but twice topping 1,000 scrimmage yards thanks to his versatility as a receiver out of the backfield.
When he came to Atlanta, Metcalf made the switch to wide receiver and flourished in Jones' run-and-shoot offense.
In 1995, Metcalf led the team and set career highs with 104 receptions and 1,189 receiving yards while adding eight receiving touchdowns. He was one of three Falcons receivers to eclipse 1,000 yards that season, joining Bert Emanuel (1,039) and Terance Mathis (1,039).
Patterson had a similar career arc, as he was drafted 29th overall as a wide receiver by the Minnesota Vikings. He would go on to make the Pro Bowl twice as a returner in his first four seasons but never really found his footing as a receiver.
Patterson is the greatest kickoff returner in NFL history, making the Pro Bowl and earning All-Pro honors four times in his career, and setting the record for career kick return touchdowns in Week 11.
Despite his success as a return man, Patterson - like Metcalf - had his versatility unlocked when he arrived in Atlanta.
At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he made the switch from wide receiver to running back in 2021 and posted career highs in rushing (618), receiving (548) and scrimmage yards (1,166). As Metcalf did some 27 years earlier, Patterson enjoyed a breakout year in his first season in Atlanta. Patterson and Metcalf are two of 12 Falcons players to have more than 1000 scrimmage yards in their first season with the team. Patterson is one of nine players to have their first career 1000-yard season in his first year in Atlanta.
Metcalf would play one more season with the Falcons and while successful, logging 54 receptions for 599 yards, he never quite recaptured the magic of that 1995 season. Patterson, despite missing four games with an injury, is on pace to top his career high in rushing yards and touchdowns.
One more quick note on that 1995 Falcons team for you to dazzle your friends at Sunday's tailgate party: That year, Atlanta was the third team in NFL history to boast three wide receivers with 1,000 or more yards. That feat has only been accomplished two additional times since 1995.
|'80 San Diego||Kellen Winslow||John Jefferson||Charlie Joiner|
|'89 Washington||Art Monk||Ricky Sanders||Gary Clark|
|'95 Atlanta||Eric Metcalf||Terance Mathis||Bert Emanuel|
|'04 Indianapolis||Marvin Harrison||Reggie Wayne||Brandon Stokely|
|'08 Arizona||Larry Fitzgerald||Anquan Boldin||Steve Breaston|
That season, the Falcons would also establish an NFL record by having four players each gain 1,000 yards, including Metcalf, Mathis, Emanuel and running back Craig Heyward (1,083). Atlanta is one of two teams in NFL history to accomplish that feat along with the 2004 Indianapolis Colts with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokely and Edgerrin James.
|'95 Falcons||E. Metcalf||T. Mathis||B. Emanuel||C. Heyward|
|'04 Colts||M. Harrison||R. Wayne||B. Stokely||E. James|
Running through the "rookie wall"
Now back to this season...
When the calendar turns to November and December, it's common for rookies to hit the metaphorical 'rookie wall.' Most rookies begin the year by training for the NFL Combine following the conclusion of their final collegiate season. They then go through the combine process, a pro day and individual private workouts leading up to the NFL Draft.
Once drafted, the rookies participate in rookie minicamp, OTAs, mandatory minicamp, training camp and the preseason all before beginning a regular season with more games than they've ever had in their high school or college career. It's understandable why rookies may begin to wear down by the end of the calendar year.
However, Falcons rookie running back Tyler Allgeier has been running right through that metaphorical wall.
In the month of November, Allgeier rushed for 228 yards on 37 carries for 6.16 yards per carry – the most among running backs and the third most among all players over the past month. Only Buffalo's Josh Allen (9.11) and Chicago's Justin Fields (8.91) averaged more yards per carry in November.
The fifth-round pick became the third Falcons rookie to average more than six yards per carry in a month in team history (min. 30 carries), joining Jerious Norwood (7.16; December 2006) and Lynn Cain (6.26; October 1979).
A key to Allgeier's success on the ground has been his ability to drag defenders for extra yards. In November, the Brigham Young product averaged a whopping 4.19 yards after contact per carry – the most in the NFL. He also led the league in average yards gained after coming within one yard of a defender, with 5.89 yards per carry.
(Side note: Marcus Mariota finished second with an average of 5.40 yards over the past month).
Allgeier enters Week 13 with a team-high 552 yards on the ground. With 54 yards on 11 carries last week in Washington, he surpassed T.J. Duckett (507 in 2002) for the third most rushing yards by a rookie in Falcons history and can continue to climb the ranks this week.
If Allgeier rushes for 82 yards on Sunday, he will surpass Jerious Norwood (633 in 2006) for the second-most rushing yards by a rookie in team history.
Mean but clean
When asked about his coaching philosophy and how he wants his units to play, Falcons special teams coordinator Marquice Williams often states he wants the unit playing "mean but clean." That mantra can be expanded to the entire team this season as Atlanta leads the NFL in the fewest penalties per game, averaging 3.92 per contest.
The Falcons offense averages a league-best 1.83 penalties per game and is the only offense in the NFL to average fewer than two flags per game.
The defense also leads the NFL with 1.17 penalties for an average of 7.83 penalty yards per game. The last team to lead the NFL in the fewest penalties on both offense and defense in a season? The 2012 Atlanta Falcons, who finished first in the NFC with a 13-3 record and hosted the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
This week's matchup features two teams accustomed to playing clean. Pittsburgh's defense ranks fourth in penalties per game (1.55) and second in penalty yards per game (11.18) this season. If these patterns continue, don't expect too much laundry on the field Sunday.
On a slightly different note, clamping down on defenders and limiting penalties have helped the Falcons defense put together its best four-game stretch of the season.
Atlanta's defense has held opponents to 22.0 points per game and 153.0 passing yards per game over the past month. Only New England (129.3) has done better against opposing passing attacks since Nov. 1. Additionally, Atlanta has notched four takeaways, including three interceptions – tied for the seventh most in the league last month.
The guys put on their red helmets for another week of work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.