The 2022 Atlanta Falcons make their primetime debut in Week 10 as they head up I-85 to Charlotte for a Thursday Night Football matchup against the Carolina Panthers. The NFL introduced Thursday Night Football with an eight-game slate in 2006 to bolster viewership on NFL Network. The league's nascent TV network served as the exclusive home for Thursday Night Football until after the 2013 season.
At that point, the primetime series of games had grown from eight to 13 and would eventually reach the 16-game slate that exists today. After bouncing between NFL Network and other broadcast partners the NFL announced that Amazon would broadcast the entire Thursday night package on its Prime video service beginning in 2022.
While Thursday will mark the Falcons first appearance on the new Amazon Prime Video broadcast, Atlanta played its first Thursday night game in 2007. For the "well, actually" crowd, the 2005 Thanksgiving game against the Lions doesn't count, as it was pre-Thursday Night Football as we know it today. Also, that game kicks off at 12:30, so (makes raspberry noise).
The Falcons have a 7-7 record on Thursday nights dating back to 2007 and Atlanta has played once per year on Thursday night since the 2010 season. Atlanta played two Thursday night games in 2018, as they were featured in the season-opening Thursday game against the Philadelphia Eagles and again later in the year. The Falcons game against the Panthers marks their second game against their division rival on Thursday night, with Atlanta previously taking a 25-17 win at Bank of America Stadium in 2020.
Since 2012, the Falcons have played nine division games on Thursday night, winning five. Atlanta has played the Saints six times, the Buccaneers twice, and the Panthers once.
After a thrilling 37-34 overtime win against Carolina in Week 8, the Falcons look to make it three-in-a-row against the Panthers. Let's take a look at some of the stats that Atlanta will lean on to get that done.
Cordarrelle Patterson didn't waste any time making his presence felt upon his return from injured reserve. The 10-year veteran has four touches on the opening drive of Sunday's game, bookending the series with a 9-yard reception on the first play and punching in a 1-yard touchdown run on the final play.
Patterson finished Sunday's game with 44 yards on 13 carries with two touchdowns, the second time in his career that he's run for two touchdowns in a game both coming since he joined the Falcons in 2021. Patterson has developed a penchant for finding the end zone in Atlanta, as he's scored 11 rushing touchdowns in 21 games with the Falcons, including five in five games this season.
With five touchdowns on 71 carries, Patterson leads the NFL in rushes per touchdown averaging a score every 14.20 carries. That's his highest touchdown rate for any season in which he has logged more than 15 carries and his best mark since the 2017 season when he notched two touchdowns on 13 carries.
While the Falcons rushing offense remained the team's strength during Patterson's absence, his impact is clearly seen. Despite missing four games, he accounts for 23.9 percent of Atlanta's rushing attempts, trailing Tyler Allgeier (31.6) and leading Caleb Huntley (21.5).
"A player like him, you need almost three other guys to fill his one specific role," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "He's a special type of player, a guy that we can really just lean on to make plays."
Patterson is averaging 5.41 yards per carry, which ranks 13th among all qualifying players and eighth among running backs. He averages a first down on 31.6 percent of his carries and has the fifth-lowest percentage of negative or zero-yard runs at 12.7 percent, followed by Allgeier at 12.8%. According to Tru Media, Patterson ranks ninth in total rushing EPA (6.77), eighth in rush EPA per game (1.35), and generates 8.6 expected points added per 100 snaps.
Patterson's five rushing touchdowns are tied with Taysom Hill for the most by any player with fewer than 75 rushing attempts. Additionally, he is one of three players to score five touchdowns or more in the first nine weeks of their age 31 season, joining Cam Newton (2020 – 8 TDs) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2010 – 5 TDs).
His performances fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which points to running backs declining after age 30. Part of that is due to his limited mileage, so to speak, with only 391 career carries. The career receiver has found his footing as a runner in Atlanta as 224 of those carries and 1,002 of his 2,019 career rushing yards have come over the last season and a half with the Falcons. Patterson has recorded 57.3 percent of his career carries, 49.6 percent of his career rushing yardage, and 58 percent of his rushing touchdowns in Atlanta.
Patterson's blend of size, speed, and power, plus the versatile way the Falcons coaching staff deploys him, have been the driving forces behind this late-career surge. Per Next Gen Stats, he is tied for fourth in the NFL in yards before contact per carry (2.2) among players with at least 70 carries, and averages 3.2 yards after contact per carry showing a strong blend of play-design, blocking, and his power.
The former 29th overall draft pick isn't just a bruiser though. Patterson has recorded 11 rushes of 10-plus-yards, and 12.7 percent of his runs gain more than 12 yards. His 10.83 average speed at the line of scrimmage ranks sixth among all players with at least 70 carries and third among running backs. That explosive speed has seen him run for an average of 3.5 yards after a defender closes to within one yard.
Patterson has generated 68 rushing yards over expectation this season, while only being stopped behind the line of scrimmage nine times, the second-fewest among players with at least 70 carries behind Damien Harris (seven). He has hit 15 MPH on 22.5 percent of his carries and Patterson leads the NFL in rushing success rate among players with at least 70 rushing attempts (57.7 percent).
A two-time winner of Good Morning Football's Angry Runs, Patterson has made his presence felt all over the field, but he's been especially effective in the red zone. On 11 red zone carries, he has averaged 5.8 yards per carry, scored three touchdowns, and generated +25 rushing yards over expected. He has a 54.5 percent success rate and averages 0.44 EPA per carry in the red zone.
He gets even better the closer he gets to the end zone, as Patterson leads the NFL in EPA per carry in goal line situations (inside the three) at 1.24 and has a 100 percent success rate, scoring two touchdowns on three carries.
The Falcons success on the ground has come from several sources, including the play of Patterson, Allgeier, Huntley, and Mariota, as well as the clever design of Smith. Atlanta's improvement in the run game has also been due in large part to the success of the team's offensive line, particularly the performance of the players on the right side, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary.
Making the Grade
In Week 9, the Falcons ran for 201 yards on 35 carries, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Sunday marked the third time this season Atlanta has run for more than 200 yards, and the Falcons are averaging 162.9 rushing yards per game. In total, the Falcons have rushed for 1,466 yards in nine games, which ranks third in the NFL.
The Falcons have gained more than half of their rushing yardage when running to the right behind Lindstrom and McGary. Atlanta has totaled 806 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry and posting an EPA per carry of 0.10 when running to the right.
Last week, Lindstrom and McGary paved the way for Falcons backs to tally 108 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries, good for 7.7 yards a pop. Atlanta generated 58 yards over expected and 0.52 EPA per carry when running behind the two fourth-year offensive linemen.
Lindstrom and McGary were both selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Lindstrom going 14th overall before the Falcons traded back into the first round to snag McGary at 31st overall. The duo developed a strong relationship that began during their draft preparation at the Senior Bowl.
"It's awesome. It's rare and really incredible the way it worked out. I don't think it could have worked out any better," McGary told NFL Total Access after the draft. "It was kind of funny, me, Chris and some of the other guys at the Senior Bowl, after we kind of buddied up to each other and were hanging out, we were talking about how cool would it be if two of us or more landed on the same team. We were just joking about it but, low and behold, it actually happened."
That budding friendship that began in Mobile, Ala., has paid dividends for the Falcon. Lindstrom quickly emerged as one of the brightest young guards in the NFL and, despite some early ups and downs, McGary has shown steady improvement and is enjoying his best season in the NFL. That's given the Falcons an impressive duo on the right side.
In Week 9, Pro Football Focus graded McGary as the top tackle and second-highest-graded offensive lineman with a 91.6 overall grade and a 94.4 run blocking grade. Meanwhile, Lindstrom posted an overall grade of 74.7 with a run-blocking grade of 69.8. PFF ranked the Falcons as the eighth-best overall offensive line in the NFL this season on the back of their performance in Week 9.
The two starters on the right side of Atlanta’s offensive line were two of the three-highest graded offensive linemen in this game, per PFF’s first run of analysis. Kaleb McGary had a strong showing in the run game, and he and Chris Lindstrom combined to allow no pressures on 27 pass-blocking snaps. Lindstrom is already starting to cement his status as one of the better right guards in the NFL, and McGary is in the midst of his best season as a professional. Pro Football Focus
McGary has enjoyed career-high grades from PFF. He ranks third among active tackles with an 84.8 run-blocking grade and his overall grade of 79.0 ranks eighth. PFF has developed a signature statistic called Pass Blocking Efficiency, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks allowed. This season, McGary has a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 97.5, surrendering nine total pressures on 257 pass-blocking snaps.
Lindstrom, who is also enjoying his best season according to PFF, has posted an 87.8 overall grade and 86.5 run-blocking grade. His 98.3 pass-blocking efficiency rating ranks ninth among all guards as he has allowed just six pressures across 257 pass-blocking snaps.
Atlanta's improved pass protection has helped lift the offense but the offensive lines' ability to dictate the line of scrimmage has paid massive dividends in the run game. According to Next Gen Stats, the Falcons average 1.8 yards per carry before contact through nine weeks. The Falcons have allowed ball carriers to see contact before the line of scrimmage on just 35.3 percent of runs despite logging the second-most attempts in the NFL (303).
When Smith said the Falcons intended to "run the piss out of this football," he meant it and his offensive line has risen to that challenge, anchored by Lindstrom and McGary having career years.
Pinion-ing Them Deep
Smith often talks about the importance of playing a complete game in all three phases. Special teams coordinator Marquice Williams' units have been up to the challenge through the first nine games of 2022, as the Falcons have excelled on fourth down this season.
Over the past couple of weeks, we've taken a look at Avery Williams and the punt return unit, which leads the NFL with a whopping 20.5 yards per return. In fact, Williams is the first player to average more than 20 yards per punt return at this point of a season since Devin Hester in 2011 (min. 10 attempts) and is just the fourth player to do so since 2000, joining Dante Hall (2003), Reggie Bush (2008) and Hester.
It's not just the punt return unit that's been stellar for Atlanta this season, however.
In his first year with the Falcons, eighth-year punter Bradley Pinion has found his groove pinning opponents deep in their own territory. Over the past five games, Pinion has landed 11 punts inside the 20-yard-line, tied for the second-most in the NFL over that span. Additionally, Pinion has landed two inside the five yard-line – both downed by gunner KhaDarel Hodge – which is tied for the most in the league since Week 5. Despite pinning several punts close to the opponents' end zone, the 28-year-old punter has not had a touchback in each of his past five games.
While Pinion is hitting his stride this season, the success of the punt unit has been a full team effort. According to Next Gen Stats, opponents have not recorded a single pressure on a Pinion punt this season. The Falcons punter has averaged 4.75 seconds of hang time per punt – the fourth-most in the NFL – allowing Atlanta's gunners to get downfield and bring down opposing returners. And Atlanta's gunners have done well to get off blocks, as KhaDarel Hodge has downed multiple punts inside the five yard-line, while Mike Ford has a team-leading four special teams tackles (three solo) on punts this season.
In a game in Charlotte that's expected to have 15 mile-per-hour winds with a 90 percent chance of rain, field position will be tremendously important. If Pinion and the punt unit can continue the momentum they've built over the past five games, it could go a long way to securing a big division win and put the Falcons back atop the NFC South.
The Falcons take flight to Charlotte to face the Panthers for Week 10. #RiseUp
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