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Nerdy Birds: Jake Matthews streaking, stopping Justin Fields, and getting off of the field on third down

The Falcons welcome the Chicago Bears to Mercedes-Benz Stadium this Sunday as Atlanta looks to get back in the win column after two straight defeats. The game will mark the 29th meeting between the two franchises with Chicago holding a slim 15-13 lead in the all-time series. Dating back to 2008, the two teams have split the past six matchups.

The Bears enter Week 11 with the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack, highlighted by quarterback Justin Fields, who has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in each of the past two games. Success on the ground has been a staple of Atlanta's offense this season as well, as they enter Sunday with the fourth-ranked rushing attack and have eclipsed 150 rushing yards in seven of the first 10 games this season – tied for the most through 10 games in franchise history and the most since 2006.

While not a divisional opponent, there is familiarity between the two franchises. Several assistant coaches on Atlanta's staff recently coached in Chicago, including offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, quarterbacks coach Charles London, running backs coach Michael Pitre and outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino. Additionally, Falcons senior personnel executive Ryan Pace spent seven seasons (2015-21) as Chicago's general manager before joining the front office in Atlanta.

Let's dive deeper into this intriguing matchup:


Ironman Matthews

Jake Matthews holds the distinction of being the longest-tenured Falcon on Atlanta's current roster, originally selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft out of Texas A&M. Matthews opened his rookie season as the starter at left tackle but missed Atlanta's Week 2 game with an injury. Since returning to the lineup in Week 13 of the 2014 season, he has started 137 consecutive games at left tackle, the longest active streak in the NFL and the third-longest consecutive games-started streak in franchise history.

Following his Week 2 start this season, Matthews surpassed Keith Brooking, who made 128 starts for the Falcons from 2000 to 2008. He trails only Matt Ryan (147) and Todd McClure (144) in franchise annals. Matthews is one of three active players with 120-or-more consecutive starts, leading Jason Kelce (132) and Charles Leno (121).

As Bill Parcells once said, "availability is the best ability," and Matthews has personified that ideal. Matthews has played 8,596 offensive snaps during his streak, including 5,407 pass-blocking snaps and 3,189 run-blocking snaps. For his career, he has played 8,623 snaps with 5,425 pass-blocking snaps and 3,198 run-blocking snaps. He is one of five offensive linemen to play at least 8,000 offensive snaps since 2014.

Dating back to 2016, when Next Gen Stats began tracking players, Matthews has traveled 75,250 yards from snap to whistle during plays, that's equivalent to 42.7 miles, or roughly the distance between the Falcons practice facility in Flowery Branch and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.

Matthew's starting streak was in jeopardy last week when his wife Meggi went into labor on Thursday morning, before the Falcons Week 10 game in Carolina. Matthews hopped in a car and made the three-hour, 200-mile drive back to the hospital to be on hand for the birth of his son. After the Meggi and Jake welcomed Beckett to the family, Falcons owner Arthur Blank picked the veteran lineman up in his private plane and flew him back to Charlotte just in time to suit up for the game.

Such consistency is something that runs in the Matthews family. His father, Bruce, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, played in 296 games, making 293 starts over a career that spanned 19 seasons. Jake has a little ways to go before catching his dad, who started every game over the final 14 seasons of his career, a 224-game stretch.

While availability has undoubtedly been one of Matthews' dominant traits in Atlanta, his consecutive starts streak doesn't fully measure his impact on the team. To this point, Pro Football Focus has Atlanta as the 11th-ranked offensive line in the league. PFF has Matthews as the team's highest-rated pass-blocking lineman, allowing 15 pressures on 296 pass-blocking snaps.

Atlanta's 502.49 total offensive EPA with Matthews on the field ranks sixth among all offensive linemen and 13th among all players who have played at least 100 games since 2014. The Falcons' 853.69 total passing EPA with Matthews on the field is fourth behind Aaron Rodgers, Travis Kelce, and Tom Brady.

Table inside Article
Player Team Pass EPA on Field
Aaron Rodgers Green Bay 978.11
Travis Kelce Kansas City 971.06
Tom Brady New England/Tampa Bay 966.90
Jake Matthews Atlanta 853.69
Matt Ryan Atlanta/Indianapolis 824.49

Playing on the offensive line is a mostly thankless job, especially outside the confines of a locker room, but Matthews has been among the most consistent and impactful players regardless of position over the course of his career.


Slowing Down Justin Fields

Atlanta's defense will have a difficult task at hand on Sunday when the Falcons host the Bears and their top-ranked rushing attack. Chicago enters the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium averaging 201.7 yards per game and is the only team in the NFL to run the ball more than Atlanta. While the two teams share a run-first identity, Chicago has taken things to another level by unleashing quarterback Justin Fields as a runner. The Falcons must limit Fields if they want to get back on track.

In the first six weeks of the season, Fields ran for 282 yards on 54 carries with one touchdown. According to TruMedia, only 12 of those carries were designed runs and he posted an EPA per rush of –0.04 on those plays. Since Week 7, Fields has 467 yards on 50 carries with five touchdowns. He leads the NFL with 31 designed runs and has lifted his EPA per designed run to 0.44.

Only Derrick Henry (515) has more rushing yards over the last four weeks and, in Week 9, Fields set a regular-season quarterback record by running for 178 yards. He's recorded back-to-back 100-yard games, following up his record-breaking performance with 147 yards and two scores in Week 10.


Fields shows an impressive blend of power and speed that has given defenses trouble this season. His 59.6 percent success rate and 7.2 yards per carry lead all players with at least 100 carries. He's been able to both power through tackles and run away from defenders. The Georgia native leads the NFL with +362 rushing yards over expected, according to Next Gen Stats, and he generates 4.64 yards after contact per carry. Over the last four weeks, he's averaged more yards after contact than Henry and trails only Tony Pollard and Dalvin Cook.

The Ohio State product has flashed his 4.4 speed while producing five of the 10 fastest runs by a quarterback this season, including the fastest, at 21.23 MPH, on a 41-yard run against the Cowboys. That play was called back due to holding, but it doesn't take away from how devastating his speed can be to opposing defenses. On his five fastest runs, Fields averaged 42.8 yards per play with two touchdowns.

For the season, Fields has recorded 749 yards on 104 carries with six touchdowns. His 0.52 EPA per carry leads all players with at least 100 carries and he's generated 0.42 EPA per carry more than the second-ranked player, Nick Chubb. Essentially, the Bears are scoring one point every two times Fields carries the ball.

Atlanta's run defense opened the season on solid footing, ranking 11th in the NFL in yards per game (106.9) after Week 9. That number swelled to 119.4 per game after surrendering 232 yards on the ground against the Panthers in Week 10. The unit will need to regroup in Week 10 to limit Fields' damage in the run game.


Fortunately for Atlanta, they've got a handful of defensive players that have been solid against the run this season. Second-year defensive tackle Ta'Quon Graham is one of the top-graded (75.8) run defenders in the league according to PFF. Graham has 26 stops, tackles for no gain, on the season. He's made 31 tackles, including 14 stops, on designed runs and has an averaged depth of tackle of 2.7 yards. Graham has also posted six tackles for loss.

Table inside Article
Player Team PFF Run D Grade
Derrick Brown Carolina 81.9
Dexter Lawrence NY Giants 78.7
Zach Sieler Miami 78.1
Grover Stewart Indianapolis 77.0
Ta'Quon Graham Atlanta 75.8

Graham's running mate, Grady Jarrett, has also been impactful against the run thus far this season. The two-time Pro Bowler has found his groove in Dean Pees' defense and has posted 25 stops and five stuffs on the season. Jarrett has 17 tackles, 11 stops, and an average depth of tackle of 3.2 yards on 207 run-defense snaps according to PFF. Jarrett and Graham have been Atlanta's first line of defense against the run and when they are not making tackles themselves, the duo has been busy keeping offensive linemen from climbing to the second level and freeing up linebackers Rashaan Evans, Mykal Walker, and Troy Andersen to stop the run.


Evans is in the midst of a bounce-back season in his first year in Atlanta. The fifth-year veteran leads the Falcons with 95 total tackles and his 16 stops and eight run stuffs both lead the team. Evans ranks third in the NFL in tackles on designed runs according to Tru Media.

Table inside Article
Player Team Run Tackles
Roquan Smith Chicago/Baltimore 61
Jordyn Brooks Seattle 59
Rashaan Evans Atlanta 56
Drue Tranquill LA Chargers 54

Pass rush is more eye-catching but on Sunday the Falcons focus will be on stopping Chicago's run game, particularly Fields. Atlanta will need to be successful in limiting the Bears on early downs and prevent Fields from moving the chains on designed runs and scrambles. Like most games, Sunday will likely come down to situational football and Atlanta must not allow Fields to wreak havoc on third downs and in the red zone.

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Getting off the field on third down

Entering Week 10, much was made of the Falcons defense's struggles to get off the field on third down, particularly on third-and-long. One week prior, the Chargers converted 5-of-10 attempts of third down opportunities of four yards or more and averaged 8.1 yards per play on those 10 attempts, which was the sixth highest in the league in Week 9.

While the defense's performance against the Chargers was one of the most productive of the season – limiting Justin Herbert to 245 passing yards on 43 attempts, including 5.7 yards per attempt, and holding Los Angeles to 20 points – the Falcons struggles to get off the field on third-and-long was an anomaly in a season that has seen this young defense progressing in that category.

Through the first seven weeks of the season, Atlanta's defense ranked 26th in the NFL on third-down attempts of two-or-more yards; however, over the past three weeks, Atlanta's defense has limited opponents to a 34.2 percent conversion rate – good for 11th in the league over that span.

Last week in Carolina, the Falcons defense limited the Panthers offense to 1-of-10 on third down attempts of two-or-more yards, marking the lowest conversion percentage of third downs of two-plus yards of any team last week and the lowest by Atlanta since Week 17 of the 2019 season when they held Tampa Bay to zero conversions on seven attempts.

Taking a look ahead at this week, conventional wisdom would make one think an offense that leads the NFL in rushing and ranks last in passing would struggle on third-and-medium and third-and-long. That's not the case with a mobile quarterback like Justin Fields. Chicago's offense converts 75 percent of third down attempts when Fields has a designed run or scrambles following a dropback. Additionally, the Bears offense has a team offensive success rate of 61.5 percent when Fields is the ball carrier – the second most in the league. Only Buffalo's Josh Allen has a higher success rate as a ball carrier at 67.6 percent. As a side note, Cordarrelle Patterson is the top running back in team offensive success rate when he's a ball carrier at 55.3 percent, good for fourth in the NFL overall. Additionally, Marcus Mariota is fifth with a 52.4 percent success rate and Caleb Huntley ranks 15th with a 44.9 percent success rate as a ball carrier.

This season, Chicago's offense has converted 39.2 percent of third down attempts of four-plus yards. Only Kansas City, Buffalo, and San Francisco have converted third-and-medium and third-and-longs at a higher rate than Chicago in 2022. If Atlanta's defense can repeat last week's performance and get the Bears offense off the field when facing third-and-medium or longer, look for that to be a big difference-maker in the outcome of Sunday's game.

Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Chicago Bears.

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