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Nerdy Birds: The importance of early downs, rushing the passer and quick hits 

LONDON -- Success on early downs is a point of emphasis for every NFL offense. The easiest way to keep drives alive and keep the chains moving is to create manageable third downs or, even better, avoid them altogether by getting first downs on first or second down. Anyone who tuned into Atlanta's Week 3 game against Detroit saw the Falcons struggle mightily on early downs.

A wide range of variables dictate the outcome of a game or the outcome of any one individual play for that matter. That's what makes football so entertaining. There are 11 players on offense and defense and each has a say in whether or not any one play is successful or not. That being said, you only get so many plays in a game, so many bites at the apple if you'll indulge in a slight autumnal metaphor.

The more successful plays an offense can have, the more drives it can sustain, and the better its chances are going to be to score points. And points, it turns out, are generally important.

Atlanta ran 64 total offensive plays against the Lions. Of those, 50 were either a first or second down. That sounds like an obvious thing to point out, of course, the first play of every drive is going to be a first down, but when you consider that 78% of the plays Atlanta ran were on first or second down, it starts to become clear how impactful those plays are and how success or a lack of success on those plays impacts the outcome of the game.

When we think of high-leverage situations, we generally think third and fourth down, red area or end-of-half situations. Now, this is not to say those aren't important moments in the game. They're referred to as critical or high leverage for a reason. Having success on first and second down can certainly reduce the pressure or limit the number of those critical moments though.


On Sunday, the Falcons had an offensive success rate of 28.8% on first and second down. That put tremendous pressure on the unit to convert on third down. Which it struggled to do, finishing the day 4-for-14 (29%). Believe it or not, that number is fairly misleading. Atlanta converted a third-and-7 on its second possession, but then went nine straight drives without a third-down conversion before hitting on three on its final scoring drive of the game.

If we ignore the final offensive possession of the game, Atlanta had four drives that went three-and-out and another three drives lasting just four plays each. This isn't overly fun to rehash but it's contextually important for what comes next.

This season, the average number of plays per scoring drive is 8.02. Over the last five seasons it's 7.79. Going all the way back to 2010, the average is 7.61. The NFL average length of scoring drive has increased as defenses try to limit explosive plays and force teams to work down the field. Teams have to sustain drives in order to score with consistency. The data suggests an offense needs, at minimum, to gain two first downs per drive to score.

NFL Average Number of Plays per Scoring Drive

Table inside Article
Year Plays Per Scoring Drive
2023 8.02
2022 7.91
2021 7.93
2020 7.82
2019 7.72
2018 7.53

Quick-strike drives or four-or-fewer plays are great, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

This season, the top five teams in terms of points per drive are also the top five teams in down set conversion rate, or the rate at which a team turns one set of downs into another set of downs via a first down or scores a touchdown. Those five teams also have a combined record of 11-4.


Since 2020, 16 of the top 20 teams in terms of down set conversion rate have made the playoffs and all have scored at least 400 points. The four that didn't make the playoffs were the only teams that didn't win at least 10 games.

On the season, Atlanta has posted an overall down set conversion rate of 66.3%, which ranks 22nd and is a shade below the league average. Over the first two weeks, Atlanta ranked 12th in down set conversion rate at 71.4%.

Table inside Article
Team Points/Drive (Rank) Down Conv. Rate (Rank)
Miami 3.61 (1) 82.7 (1)
Buffalo 2.80 (2) 78.4 (2)
LA Chargers 2.69 (4) 77.4 (3)
San Francisco 2.73 (3) 77.3 (4)
Dallas 2.52 (5) 76.7 (5)

That drop can be directly correlated to the team's struggles on early downs. In its first two games, Atlanta had an early down success rate of 42.9%, which tied for ninth in the league. As we mentioned earlier, that dipped to 28.8% in Week 3 and sits at 38.2% for the season. That looks bleak, but this is where we turn it around.

Atlanta ranked 11th in down set conversion rate last season and fifth in overall offensive success rate. Atlanta was third in offensive success rate on early downs (44.4%). These tend to be sticky statistics, meaning that the teams that are good are usually good year over year.

Sunday's game against the Lions was also one of Atlanta's worst games in terms of early down success rate under head coach Arthur Smith. In 37 games, the Falcons have been sub-30% just four times and the team has pulled out wins in two of those games. As tough sledding as last week was, this team has shown it has the ability to overcome a poor performance but also to fix the issue at its root.

To improve these marks and get a win on Sunday, the Falcons will need to be efficient against a solid Jaguars defense on early downs. Jacksonville ranks ninth in the NFL in defensive success rate (62.5) on early downs. The Jags allow 4.9 yards per play, but just 3.6 yards per rush on first and second down.

Jacksonville has allowed eight runs of 10-plus yards, but has created contact at or before the line of scrimmage on 56.5% of early-down carries. Teams are averaging 1.1 yards before contact and 2.7 yards after contact. The 160 total yards after contact the Jags defense has allowed is the ninth-best mark in the NFL, showing their ability to stop opposing runners at or near the line of scrimmage. We probably have our old friend Foyesade Oluokon to thank for that.


Sunday at Wembley will be a good test for Atlanta's offensive line and running backs.

The Falcons have thrived on yards after contact this season, notching the fourth most in the NFL (324) and averaging the second most per carry (3.6) in the league this season. Atlanta has gained 300 of those yards -- and averages 3.9 yards after contact per carry -- on early downs.

The Falcons will look to re-establish their explosive run game by extending runs post-contact. The Falcons have 11 runs of 10+ yards on early downs and an impressive 14.1% of first down carries have resulted in gains of more than 10 yards. Additionally, Atlanta ranks fifth in the percentage of runs that result in a first down on early downs. That's despite seeing loaded boxes at the highest rate in the NFC (46.2).


It's no secret that Atlanta will run the ball on early downs. The Falcons will also need to show they can change it up and attack through the air on first and second down as defenses have presented light boxes, or seven or fewer defenders in the box, at the third lowest rate in the NFL (25.6)

The Jaguars are allowing an opponent passer rating of 79.0, 6.4 yards per attempt and have a defensive success rate of 55% on early down passes. The Falcons haven't been perfect but their success rate on early down passes (43.5) ranks ahead of some impressive teams like Kansas City and Philadelphia.

It won't be easy by any stretch, but Falcons fans should feel optimistic that the offensive struggles in Week 3 are an outlier and this team will find its footing.


Affecting the Passer

Every defensive coordinator in the NFL would want his defense to accumulate more sacks. However, sacks alone don't paint the full picture of how pass rushes can affect opposing quarterbacks. Take last week for example. The Falcons defense was shut out of the sack column for the first time this season, but they hit Lions quarterback Jared Goff a season-high nine times, per TruMedia.

Since entering the NFL in 2016, Goff has found success against the blitz, throwing 32 touchdown passes with only five interceptions for a 114.1 passer rating when opponents bring six- or seven-man pressures in his career. Last week, Atlanta rushed four on 79.4% of Goff's drop backs, and while Goff got the ball out in under three seconds per drop back, the Falcons defensive front put pressure on the Lions signal caller throughout the game.

The Falcons investment in the defensive line this offseason – signing David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, and Bud Dupree in free agency and selecting Zach Harrison in the third round of the NFL Draft, to name a few – has been well-documented. Pairing the new additions with returning rushers like Lorenzo Carter, Arnold Ebiketie and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Grady Jarrett has led to a jump in four-man production.

(One note on Grady: the ninth-year pro and team captain posted a team-high three quarterback hits last week and is tied with Buffalo's Ed Oliver and Seattle's Jarran Reid for the most quarterback hits from an interior defensive lineman this season. No. 97 is still highly productive and in the prime of his career.)

Despite limited sack numbers through three weeks, there's more to the story of how effective this front has been so far. This season, Atlanta's defense has a 63.4% success rate when rushing four, good for sixth in the NFL. To put that in perspective, that's the highest success rate on four-man rushes by Atlanta through three games dating back to at least 2010. The second-best defensive success rate on four-man rushes for the Falcons came in 2013 at 56.4%.

Getting after quarterbacks with four-man pressures has freed up seven other defenders to make life difficult on opposing pass catchers. Per TruMedia, the Falcons have limited opponents to seven explosive passing plays through three weeks – tied with Cleveland, Dallas and San Francisco for the fewest in the NFL in 2023.


Jessie Bates III notched his third interception of the season when he picked off Jared Goff in the second half last week. Through three games, Bates is tied for the league lead with three interceptions and is only one of two players to have multiple games with double-digit tackles and an interception through the first three weeks of a season since 2000.

The Falcons captain can join Tom Hayes (four in 1972) and D.J. Johnson (four in 1994) as the third player to record four interceptions through the first four games of a season in franchise history.

Chase for 100

Sunday will mark the fourth-career game at Wembley Stadium for Calais Campbell.

In three previous trips to Wembley, the six-time Pro Bowler has notched 14 total tackles (10 solo), 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, three tackles for loss and one forced fumble. With one sack against his former team on Sunday, Campbell would become the 42nd player in NFL history to record 100 sacks.

The 16-year veteran would be one of six active players to reach the century mark and the first since Aaron Donald accomplished the feat last season. Sacks were made an official statistic in 1982. Dating back to 1960, there are (unofficially) 64 players with 100+ sacks, including the Falcons all-time leader and Pro Football Hall of Famer Claude Humphrey (130.0), who played his entire career before sacks were officially recognized.


Koo is True

Since joining the Falcons in 2019, Younghoe Koo has made 126-of-139 field goal attempts. He has the highest field goal percentage (90.6) among all kickers with at least 100 field goal attempts over that time.

Since 2000, only Justin Tucker (90.2) has posted a better field goal percentage than Koo's career mark of 89.0, according to TruMedia.


Koo also has the best field goal percentage by any Falcons kicker to attempt at least 100 field goals. The only players with a better mark in franchise annals have combined for 32 attempts, which includes quarterback Chris Miller. Yes, quarterback.

Miller hit a field goal in a 45-3 loss to the 49ers in November of 1989. How's that for a rabbit hole and a vague, but obligatory, Taylor Swift nod?

The Falcons take flight to London to face the Jacksonville Jaguars in week four's international game of the 2023 regular season. #RiseUp

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