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Nerdy Birds: Fighting the field position battle, stopping the run when Falcons face Minnesota Vikings in Week 9

Atlanta’s defense has allowed one lone rushing touchdown this season and have gone five straight games without allowing a score on the ground.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's not exactly advanced analytics to say that field position is important, and it doesn't take the eye of a scout or a studious film nerd to realize that the Falcons struggled with that against the Titans last week. However, in a similar vein to the way we broke down the importance of early downs after the Detroit game, we'll look at exactly how field position impacted Sunday's outcome and how the Falcons can adjust moving forward.

The Falcons had 14 offensive possessions in Nashville on Sunday. A whopping 10 of those drives began inside the Falcons 25-yard line, the most for any team during Week 8 by a wide margin. Only the Jets came close with seven while the next nearest teams had six such drives. Atlanta generated -1.8 expected points added per drive and -0.43 EPA per play on those possessions. The Falcons scored just three points on those 10 drives and their 0.3 points per drive ranked 19th for the week. Additionally, Atlanta was 32nd in the NFL, or last in total offensive EPA, on those drives (-17.64).

Those numbers back up what is a fairly obvious statement, but we'll say it anyway. It's hard to score when you start a drive backed up. For the season, the average starting field position for all scoring drives is minus-34 or the offense's own 34-yard line. Meanwhile, the average drive distance on scoring drives is 57.2 yards. On drives resulting in touchdowns, that number moves up nearly 10 yards to 66.7.

Week 8 Drive Comparison

Table inside Article
Stat Inside the 25 25 and Beyond
Drives 10 4
EPA/Drive -1.8 +2.7
EPA/Play -0.43 +0.43
Points/Drive 0.3 5.0
Total Points 3 20
Total EPA -17.64 +10.68

Again, none of this is all that surprising but it underscores the hole the Falcons found themselves in on two-thirds of their offensive possessions on Sunday. It also speaks to the massive difference that better field position provided.

The Falcons had four possessions starting at or beyond their own 25, the fewest such drives in the league last week. Atlanta led the NFL in EPA per drive (2.7) and EPA per play (0.43) on those drives. For the expected-points-aren't-real crowd, Atlanta scored 20 points and its 5.0 points per drive on those possessions led the league as well. Remember when we said the Falcons ranked last in total offensive EPA on long drives? Well, Atlanta was fifth on drives starting at or beyond the 25 (10.68).

Week 8 Drive Breakdown

Table inside Article
Team EPA per Drive Points per Drive
Atlanta 2.7 5.0
Dallas 1.9 4.43
Washington 1.8 3.88
Philadelphia 1.7 3.80
San Francisco 1.3 2.82

This wasn't simply a special team's issue, although all eight of the punts Atlanta forced resulted in drives starting inside the 20 (including six inside the 15 and a further three inside the 10) so it certainly played a role. As both head coach Arthur Smith and special teams coordinator Marquice Williams said this week, the team needs to be better in the return game. But being backed up seemed to create a cycle that perpetuated itself drive after drive.

Atlanta's defense forced the Titans to punt eight times on 13 drives (we're not including the final drive consisting of kneel downs). That's 61.5% of possessions ending in punts. That's pretty good. The issue was that the Titans' average field position on punts was their own 40.5-yard line. Even when Atlanta was able to stall a drive, the Titans were still able to flip the field. Ryan Stonehouse averaged 52.5 yards per punt which puts the ball at the 6-yard line on average, roughly. In the first half Atlanta's average start was the 19.8-yard line and the Falcons managed just 9.9 yards per drive.

The offense starting backed up changes the plays the unit has available, and when it can't get anything going you end up punting from deep in your own territory. That led to a back-and-forth where Tennessee was able to keep Atlanta backed up, despite the Titans crossing the 50 on just four occasions.

In the first half, the Titans average starting position was their own 35.0, but Atlanta still limited Tennessee to just 20 yards per drive, the 7th fewest in the league. That still put Tennessee in shot-play territory. They took advantage of those opportunities, scoring touchdowns on three passes of 30-plus yards.

Atlanta was able to break out of that cycle in the second half, and while it's tempting to assign that to the quarterback change, field position played a major role. Three of the Falcons' four second-half scoring drives started at the Atlanta 25-yard line. The Titans gained an average of 25.2 yards per drive on Sunday compared to the 24.4 that Atlanta gained. That's a slim margin, but because of the way many of the drives were set up, it made a significant difference to the outcome.

This season NFL teams are averaging 1.35 points per drive on drives that start inside the 25 and 2.10 points on drives starting at or beyond the 25. Teams also average higher EPA per play, EPA per drive and fewer three-and-outs when starting beyond the 25. This is an issue that Atlanta will need to correct, but it will take all phases to do so.

The offense needs to get into drives, which not only increases the probability of scoring, but in the event they don't score they can flip the field and limit the opponent's chances. The defense will need to continue to get off the field and limit the opponent's progress to prevent the field from being flipped. Finally, the special team's units will need to bolster both the offense and defense by setting them up in favorable situations.


Stopping the Run

In Ryan Nielsen's introductory press conference in February, the first-year defensive coordinator made it clear: If you can stop the run with a light box and not have to allocate additional resources to stop the run, you're playing pretty good run defense. In the first year under Nielsen, the defense has done just that.

This season, Atlanta has averaged 6.65 defenders in the box at the snap. The Falcons have had fewer than seven defenders in the box at the snap on 48.4% of plays. They have had a loaded box on fewer than 25% of snaps and have had eight-plus defenders in the box on 18.4% of snaps – all below the league average.

Despite not "packing the paint" defensively, the Falcons defense has limited opposing ball-carriers to an average of 1.11 yards before contact per carry, which is fifth fewest in the NFL. Not always having more defenders than blockers in the tackle box hasn't been a hindrance for this defense as the defense has utilized its speed to get after ballcarriers.

Falcons opponents have gained a first down on a league-low 18% of rush attempts this season. Opposing offenses have only found the end zone on the ground once against Atlanta (a three-yard scamper by Detroit's Jared Goff). Atlanta's defensive performance marks the first time a team hasn't allowed a running back to rush for a touchdown through the first eight weeks of a season since the Chicago Bears in 2018.

Last week, Tennessee tested the run defense, running the ball a season-high 36 times. Despite losing Pro Bowl defensive lineman Grady Jarrett to injury on the first series, Atlanta's defense hung in there, limiting the Titans to 4.1 yards per carry. With news coming this week that Jarrett will miss the rest of the season, the rest of the defense will need to find a way to continue to be stout against the run without their team captain in the middle.

Looking at the opponent this week, Minnesota ran the ball a season-high 31 times in Green Bay in Week 8. That number was more likely a product of having a 21-point lead in the second half against the Packers than anything else, but with a rookie quarterback making his first career start on Sunday, don't be surprised if the Vikings lean on the rushing attack this week, too. With Minnesota missing Kirk Cousins and Atlanta missing Grady Jarrett, it will be interesting to see how both teams adjust in their first game without either.

Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo #6 and defensive lineman Grady Jarrett #97 prior to the Week 8 Game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee on Sunday, October 29, 2023. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

Quick Hits

Dual-threat Robinson

Bijan Robinson continues to show his dual-threat ability. Through eight games, the rookie running back has amassed 655 scrimmage yards.

With 45 total rushing and/or receiving yards on Sunday he would become the second fastest player to reach 700 yards from scrimmage in franchise history. Only Ring of Honor member William Andrews accomplished the feat sooner, doing so in eight games. Julio Jones (10), Kyle Pitts (12) and Tyler Allgeier (13) round out the record book.

Robinson leads all rookie running backs in rushing and receiving yards and ranks second to Puka Nacua (799) in scrimmage yards.

Under pressure

According to Next Gen Stats, Atlanta has posted the lowest opponent pressure rate over the last four weeks at 25.3%. Atlanta has allowed just 39 pressures despite having the ninth-most dropbacks (154) in the NFL over that span.

On 'in-rhythm throws' or throws between 2.5 and 4.0 seconds from the snap, the Falcons rank third in pressure rate (24.1), sixth in air yards per target (12.3) and seventh in CPOE (+8.0%). These numbers show the offensive line is trending upwards in the passing game.

No vacancy in the endzone

Atlanta's defense has allowed one lone rushing touchdown this season and have gone five straight games without allowing a score on the ground. Atlanta has allowed just 33 yards on nine carries inside the red zone and has a 77.8 success rate on red zone carries.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Minnesota Vikings, sponsored by Fast Twitch.

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