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Nerdy Birds: A defense coming into its own and a passing game on the rise 

How about that defense? The Falcons rank fourth in the NFL in total defense, allowing 278.2 yards per game, but that stat tends to be a little misleading. Here's why. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- How about that defense? Atlanta's defensive turnaround has been, and will continue to be, vital to the team's success in 2023. The Falcons have held opponents to a 20 points per game average this season and have not surrendered more than 24 points in a single game. The Falcons rank fourth in the NFL in total defense, allowing an average of 278.2 yards per game, but that stat tends to be a little misleading.

Total defense is what the traditional "top-10" defense moniker has been based on for a long time, but it doesn't account for some of the nuances of the game. Things like short fields after a turnover or explosive returns, offenses that score quickly but don't string together drives, and games where the time of possession heavily favors one team.


That probably sounds like a backhanded compliment to the Falcons defense, but it's not. Looking at several different metrics, Atlanta has been a top-flight defense through six weeks.

Atlanta ranks fifth in the NFL in success rate with 62.1% of plays ending in a 'win' for the defense based on expected points added per play. Atlanta also ranks sixth in yards per play (4.7), three-and-out drives (40.3%), and down set conversion rate (66%).


It's not exactly nuance to say that keeping the opposing offense off of the field is the quickest way to boost these numbers, but that's been key to the Falcons defensive resurgence. Atlanta ranks second in the NFL in third-down rate (31.1%), trailing only the Cleveland Browns (23.1%). According to Tru Media, the Browns currently have the best third-down defense since at least 2000, so not bad company. By virtue of that strong third-down defense, Atlanta ranks fourth in three-and-punt drives with 25.4% of opponent possessions resulting in three plays and then a punt.

Slight point of order. That sounds like what you'd traditionally call a three-and-out. Per Tru Media, a three-and-out is classified as a drive that does not gain a first down or a touchdown. That leaves a few outcomes on the table, such as a field goal or a turnover. Three-and-punt drives are classified as exactly that, three plays and a punt.


Regardless of what we call it or how we classify it, the Falcons have been very successful at getting teams off of the field and limiting their ability to get into drives. We mentioned this a few weeks ago when discussing the importance of early downs for the offense and those truths remain.

The average length of a scoring drive in the NFL this season is 7.99 plays. On average, Atlanta is allowing 5.3 plays per opponent possession, the fifth-fewest in the league. Fewer plays equals fewer points.

It has truly taken all 11 players on the field for Atlanta to have the kind of defensive success that it has enjoyed to this point. The Falcons run defense has been among the stoutest in the NFL, ranking third in defensive success rate against rushes (68.9%) and second in expected points added per carry (minus-0.21). Perhaps the most impressive part of the Falcons run defense this season has been the team's ability to have success with light boxes.

Atlanta is allowing just 3.7 yards per carry despite having seven or fewer defenders in the box on 52.8% of carries. That is the 10th-highest percentage of light boxes in the league this season. And when you can defend the run without devoting extra resources to the box, like an additional linebacker or safety, you can use those resources to better match up against the offense in the passing game.

With the league average completion going for 10.9 yards this season, preventing the offense from gaining 40% of the necessary yards through the air on first down, 50% on second down, and converting on third or fourth down can be a tall order. That's what Atlanta has done at a higher rate than most this season as the Falcons rank ninth in defensive success rate on pass plays (57.6).

Making it tough for opposing quarterbacks to get completions has been a major part of that. The Falcons have allowed teams to complete 61.4% of their passes. That number is 1.9% below the expected completion percentage modeled by Next Gen Stats, ranking 11th in CPOE, or completion percentage over expected.

If we drill down a little bit deeper into the passing numbers, Atlanta has been very successful in defending the intermediate area of the field, helping to limit the types of plays that either get drives going, extend drives or flip the field. The Falcons have allowed 46.2% of passes targeting the intermediate area, or 10-to-19 yards downfield, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Atlanta's minus-10.7 CPOE ranks seventh in the NFL this season. The team has generated 10 pressures, a minus-0.04 EPA per dropback and has a 53.8 success rate on such throws.

While room for improvement remains, the Falcons have fielded an impressive defensive unit this season. This unit will be vital to the team's success moving forward. If the defense can continue to play with the aggressive and attacking style it has developed through six games, Atlanta will continue to give itself opportunities to win, no matter the opponent.

Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Grady Jarrett #97 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, October 19, 2023. (Photo by Jay Bendlin/Atlanta Falcons)

Passing game improvement

When speaking with local media this week, head coach Arthur Smith made it clear: critical errors cost teams. They did for the Falcons last week.

In games this year when teams are minus-three or worse in turnover differential, they've come away with a win 6% of the time. We saw it in Week 1 when the defense created three takeaways en route to a 24-10 win over Carolina.

On Monday, Smith said the team needed to acknowledge the critical errors by figuring out why they happened and how they can get them fixed, but also added that he sees obvious improvement in the pass game.

For context, here's the full quote: "We've got to eliminate some of these critical errors, but I think you can't deny the fact that the passing game has gotten a lot better, but we have to eliminate some of the critical mistakes."

Smith emphasized and re-emphasized the need to eliminate critical errors. However, his statement that the passing game has gotten a lot better? It's backed up by numbers. So, let's take a look.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Jonnu Smith #81 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Wednesday, October 18, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

Through the first four games of the season, Atlanta's offense had a down set conversion rate – or the percentage of first downs that result in another first down or a touchdown – of 66.4%, good for 21st in the NFL. In Weeks 5-6, that number jumped to 73.9%, which was good enough for seventh-best in the league over that span.

Weeks 1-4, the Falcons posted a 39.1% successful play rate on offense. Over the past two weeks, that number increased to 45.2% – fourth-best in the NFL. Only Miami (51.6%), Cincinnati (46.7%) and San Francisco (46.4%) had a higher successful play rate offensively over the past two weeks.

Four weeks into the 2023 season, Atlanta's offense ranked 29th in the NFL in EPA per dropback at –0.24. In Weeks 5-6, the Falcons have had an EPA per dropback of 0.08, again, seventh-best in the NFL.

Finally, looking at total yards... *ducks

OK, yes, we're well aware total yards can be an antiquated way to measure offensive output, but it does tell an important story here.

Through four weeks, the Falcons offense averaged 284.3 yards per game, good for 24th in the league just behind Tampa Bay (301.5) and New Orleans (285.3). Since Week 5, the Falcons have averaged 424.5 yards per game – good for second in the NFL. Only Miami (474) has averaged more yards per game over the past two weeks.

Yes, the Falcons offense must eliminate critical errors that cost them last week. No one has shied away from that this week. However, looking at the numbers, it's clear this pass game is trending in the right direction.

Quick Hits

Jefe Returns

Jeff Okudah is enjoying a return to the form that made him a coveted player coming out of Ohio State and the third overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

According to Next Gen Stats, Okudah has been targeted just 10 times this season and has allowed only three receptions on 85 coverage snaps. Okudah has surrendered 51 yards while allowing opposing passers to complete a measly 30% of their passes with a 48.3 passer rating. The newly minted Falcon ranks third among all defenders with at least 10 targets and second among defensive backs with a minus-28.8 CPOE. He has also produced a minus-4.8 target EPA over six games this season.

Table inside Article
Player Team CPOE
Darrick Forest WAS -31.6
Jeff Okudah ATL -28.8
Rudy Ford GB -26.5
DJ Turner CIN -22.8
Kerby Joseph DET -22.1

Under Pressure

According to Next Gen Stats, the Falcons defense generated pressure on 13-of-29 dropbacks (44.8%) against the Commanders in Week 6, which was the unit's highest pressure of the season. Atlanta notched five sacks, all coming from a four-man rush.

The Falcons rushed four on 23 of Sam Howell's 29 dropbacks (79%) and posted 10 pressures (a 43.5 pressure rate). Calais Campbell finished with a team-leading and season-high five pressures, including his milestone 100th career sack. The chart below shows the Falcons with the most quarterback pressures this year.

Table inside Article
Player QB Pressures
Calais Campbell 13
Grady Jarrett 13
David Onyemata 12
Bud Dupree 10
Arnold Ebiketie 9

Kicking it

And last but certainly not least: Younghoe Koo connected on his 10th field goal of the season last week. Since joining the Falcons in 2019, Koo has made 129-of-142 attempts, leading the NFL with a 90.8 field goal percentage (min. 100 attempts) over that span.

Table inside Article
Player Team FG Pct.
Younghoe Koo ATL 90.8%
Justin Tucker BAL 90.7%
Nick Folk TEN 90.5%
Graham Gano NYG 90.0%
Daniel Carlson LV 88.8%

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, presented by Fast Twitch.

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