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Nerdy Birds: Cordarrelle Patterson's historic return, slowing down the Commanders rush, and Olamide Zaccheaus' impact

Chris Lindstrom, Drew Dalman and Kaleb McGary looking to build off dominant showing against Chicago

Atlanta enters Week 12 in an intriguing spot. Sitting at 5-6, the Falcons are in the mix for an NFC South title and a playoff spot with six games to play. The team has pulled itself to .500 three different times this season and will look to do so again on Sunday in Washington.


The Commanders hold a 16-10-1 advantage in the all-time series between the two teams and won the most recent matchup, a 34-30 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2021. That loss snapped Atlanta's seven-game winning streak against Washington, which dated back to 2006 which included three wins at FedEx Field. The Falcons have won their last four games at Washington, a streak that goes back to 1994.

Sunday sets up a late-season matchup against two teams fighting for a playoff spot. What more can you ask for in late November in the NFL? Let's dive into some of the numbers that have these two teams where they are today.


Historic Return(-er)

Cordarrelle Patterson set an NFL record with the ninth kickoff return touchdown of his career in Atlanta's, 27-24, Week 11 win over the Chicago Bears. Patterson moved clear of Josh Cribbs (8) and Leon Washington (8), with whom he previously shared the NFL record, by breaking a 103-yard return in the second quarter.

The former first-round pick also set a franchise record for the longest kickoff return in franchise history, previously held by Eric Weems at 102 yards. Coincidentally, Weems was the last Falcon to return a kickoff for a touchdown, doing so with a pair of 102-yard returns in 2010. Weems set the club mark in a Week 13 game at Tampa Bay and later matched it in the NFC Divisional round playoff game against Green Bay.

While the headline for Patterson's return was certainly breaking the NFL record, he could not have picked a more opportune time to provide a spark. On the Falcons' previous possession, Patterson fumbled in the midst of a 17-yard run. The turnover gave the Bears a short field and resulted in a 4-yard touchdown run by Justin Fields.

Following the Bears score, the Falcons trailed by 10 points and Chicago had a win probability of 76.6 percent. Vowing to redeem himself, Patterson fielded the kick from Cairo Santos three yards deep in Atlanta's end zone but his mind was made up. He was going to change the game.

"Honestly, man I was just a little angry that I fumbled on the drive before that," Patterson told Atlanta Falcons insider and 92.9-FM analyst Dave Archer. "I knew when he kicked me the ball, I was saying to myself, this is the one. I need to make up for it. I let my team down, so I need to make up for it."

Patterson took the ball out of the end zone, running to his right before cutting back and racing right through the middle of the Bears coverage unit. He covered 114.5 total yards on the play and, according to Next Gen Stats, reached a top speed of 19.90 miles per hour.

Falcons blockers Parker Hesse, Frank Darby, and Erik Harris walled off one side of the field, while KhaDarel Hodge, Avery Williams, and Nick Kwiatkoski handled the other flank. Two more key downfield blocks from Keith Smith and Mike Ford helped spring Patterson into the open field. From there, he slipped past Bears linebacker Matt Adams, who closed to within .65 yards of Patterson, before splitting Santos and Elijah Hicks, who each came within two yards of Patterson. Hicks put up an impressive effort to try and trip up Patterson but he couldn't keep him out of the end zone.

The play lasted 17 seconds and cut Chicago's win probability down to 58.6 percent. That's an 18 percent swing on a single play, as a comfortable 10-point margin was trimmed to three with just over four minutes remaining in the first half.

Patterson's score was important in both the local and historical sense, bringing Atlanta back into a game it would eventually win and setting an NFL record in the process. Perhaps the most impressive part of Patterson's record-setting career as a kick return is that most of it has taken place during a time period when the NFL has deliberately reduced the number of kickoff returns in an effort to make the game safer.

Despite having fewer returns than both Cribbs and Washington, Patterson stands alone atop the record books. He has the fewest returns among any player with six-or-more kickoff return touchdowns since 1994. According to TruMedia, Patterson has returned a kickoff for a touchdown once every 29.3 returns which is the fewest returns per touchdown of any player with at least 200 kickoff returns over the last 22 seasons.

Table inside Article
Player Kickoff Returns KR/TD
Cordarrelle Patterson 264 29.3
Leon Washington 292 36.5
Terrence McGee 207 41.4
Andre Davis 205 51.3
Josh Cribbs 426 53.3

Those numbers are made more impressive by the rule changes that have been implemented over that time to try and make kickoffs safer. In 2011, NFL moved the kickoff up from the 30-yard line to the 35. Beginning in 2016, the league also began testing another change, moving touchbacks up from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line, giving the offense a five-yard incentive to take the touchback and not bring the ball out for a return. From 2016 to 2019, the league also eliminated wedge blocks and created a 'set-up zone' designed to reduce the number of full-speed collisions on kickoff returns. All of these adjustments and rule changes had the impact of reducing injuries, particularly concussions, but also reduced the number of kickoff returns.

They became more strategic, with teams returning kicks if they had a special player like Patterson, or if an opposing coverage unit felt that it could exploit a weakness and back a team up deep in their territory without giving up the free 25 yards awarded on a touchback.

From 1994-2010, when kickoffs were taken from the 30-yard line players averaged 22 yards per return and the average return began at the minus seven-yard line, meaning returners caught the ball and started their return attempt at their own seven-yard line. Additionally, offensive drives had an average start position at the 28.8-yard line following a return attempt, 84.5 percent of returns were taken past the 20-yard line and just 11.3 percent of kickoffs resulted in a touchback.

Since 2011, those numbers have all been reduced except for yards per return. Over the last 12 seasons, returners are averaging 22.9 yards per return but they are fielding the ball at the minus 1.8-yard line. Drives have an average starting position of the 24.3-yard line after returns. Meanwhile, just 68.2 percent of kickoff returns are taken past the 20-yard line, a 16.3 percent drop. Perhaps the greatest impact has come in the percentage of touchbacks, which has increased to 54.7 percent since 2011. Since 2018, 60.3 percent of kickoffs have resulted in a touchback, a nearly 50 percent decrease in the percentage of kickoffs that are returned compared to the previous 17 seasons.

Table inside Article
Stat 1994-2010 2011-2022
Yards Per Return 22.0 22.9
Kick Return Avg. Start -7.0 -1.8
Avg. Drive Start -28.8 -24.3
Pct. of Returns 20+ 84.5% 68.2%
Touchback Pct. 11.3% 54.7%

The kickoff used to be one of the most exciting plays in football but also one of the most dangerous. Despite losing some of its luster, having a player like Patterson reminds us that kickoff is not the time to take a bathroom break, lest you miss another historic moment.


Slowing Down the Rush

The Falcons stopped a two-game skid with their Week 11 win over the Chicago Bears, which improved their record to 5-6. Last week's win was critical to keeping the team's postseason hopes alive, and Sunday's matchup against the Commanders marks the beginning of an important final stretch as the team looks to get back to .500 and eventually get over a hump that has eluded them thus far.

The Falcons offense will need to be efficient to get the best of a stout Commanders defense. That means being good on first and second down to set up manageable third downs, converting those third downs, and finishing drives with touchdowns. On the season, the Falcons rank 16th in down-set conversion rate, the percentage at which teams convert one first down into another first down or a touchdown. It measures how effective an offense is at staying on the field and converting drives into points.

Washington's defense ranks third in that metric, allowing a first down or touchdown on just 66 percent of drives. The Commanders have also created three-and-outs at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL (25.2 percent) and rank third in defensive success rate with 62.2 percent of plays resulting in a win for the defense. Washington's defensive prowess has been due in large part to its vaunted defensive front, anchored by Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Montez Sweat. The unit could also see a boost from former No. 2 overall pick Chase Young, who has been limited in practice this week but could return on Sunday.

The Commanders defense has been stout against both the pass and the run. According to Next Gen Stats, Washington ranks fourth in total quarterback pressures (122), third in pressure rate (32.4 percent), and eighth in EPA per dropback (-0.1). The Commanders have allowed the ninth-most rushing yards in the NFL and are giving up 4.2 yards per carry, but they lead the league in EPA per carry (-0.15) and total rush EPA (-39.4).

Both Allen (39) and Sweat (37) rank in the top 10 in the NFL in terms of quarterback pressures. Payne is no slouch, with 26 pressures. The aforementioned trio has combined for 25 stuffs, tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and 19 sacks.

Atlanta will likely stick to its identity of being a run-oriented team to try and slow down the Commanders pass rush and open up to some downfield shots. Atlanta ranks fifth in the NFL in offensive success rate (47.1) on running plays and tied for seventh in EPA per carry (0.03). This has helped Marcus Mariota lead the league in air yards per pass attempt (10.28) as Atlanta's run game has been successful in drawing the bulk of defensive attention.

One group that will certainly draw attention in this matchup: the Falcons offensive line. The unit's ability to move Washington's front off of the ball in the run game and their ability to slow the Commanders down in the pass game will be vital factors in determining Atlanta's success on Sunday. Fortunately for Mariota and his backfield companions, the Falcons line is coming off of one of its best performances of the season.

Following Atlanta's Week 11 win over Chicago, Pro Football Focus named Drew Dalman, Chris Lindstrom, and Kaleb McGary to its team of the week and named the group its offensive line of the week. The Falcons allowed just two hurries on 26 pass-blocking snaps and earned a 94.5 team run blocking grade for the week.

Lindstrom led the way, earning the highest offensive grade of any offensive lineman for the week at 95.5, his third week earning a grade above 90 and his second above 95. Dalman was the fifth-ranked offensive lineman, earning an 86.4 overall grade while McGary continued his strong season coming tied with Jake Matthews at eighth (82.9). Additionally, Chuma Edoga tallied a 77.8 overall grade and ranked fifth among all offensive linemen with an 84.9 run-blocking grade.

The Falcons will need their offensive line to build on its dominating performance in Week 11 in order to keep the team trending up late in the season. The line will have its hands full slowing down the Commanders defensive front, but they've shown this season that when the team is balanced and efficient, particularly on early downs, they are a difficult group to move.


Efficiency from OZ

Entering Week 12, Olamide Zaccheaus continues to be one of the most efficient pass catchers in the NFL. This season, the 5-foot-8, 194-pound receiver has 25 catches on 31 targets for 374 yards and two touchdowns.

When targeting No. 17 this season, Marcus Mariota has often pushed the ball downfield. In fact, among wide receivers with at least 30 targets in 2022, Zaccheaus ranks second in the league in yards per target with an average of 12.1 yards. Additionally, 19 of Zaccheaus' 25 receptions have moved the chains. The fourth-year receiver ranks sixth in the NFL with a 76.0 percent first down percentage.


Despite taking shots downfield, Mariota and Zaccheaus have connected more often than not. According to Next Gen Stats, Zaccheaus has an expected catch rate of 65.8 percent; however, Mariota and Zaccheaus have connected on 80.6 percent of targets resulting in a 14.9 percent catch rate over expected – the second highest among all receivers in the NFL.

This season, Mariota has a 138.4 passer rating when targeting Zaccheaus. His 138.4 passer rating is the second highest in the NFL regardless of position among players with at least 30 targets behind only Kansas City's Mecole Hardman.

All of that to say, Atlanta's passing attack has seen success this season, particularly moving the chains, when No. 17 is the target. That passing attack will be put to the test on Sunday, as Washington enters Week 12 limiting opponents to 204.9 passing yards per game and just 32.9 percent on third down – the third best in the NFL. Whether the Falcons are able to extend drives by converting on third down through the air or whether the Commanders continue their success getting off the field could play a massive role in Sunday's outcome.

Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Washington Commanders, presented by Gatorade.

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