After two wildly different but equally difficult losses to open the season, Atlanta was able to put it all together to pick up its first win of 2022 topping the Seahawks, 27-23, in Seattle. The Falcons have shown they are building a solid foundation over the first three weeks and look to continue that process against a tough Cleveland team in Week 4.
This week's matchup is about as rare as it gets in the NFL, with the teams meeting just 15 times since 1966 and just five times since re-alignment in 2002. This is typical of most of the Falcons AFC opponents, as Atlanta plays one AFC division each year. The Browns lead the all-time series, 12-3, and are 4-1 against Atlanta since returning to the NFL in 1999. The Falcons last win came in Cleveland, a 20-10 victory on October 10, 2010, or 10/10/10.
The 2022 Falcons will try and secure their season's first win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday. Here's a look at some of the key stats that will impact the game this week.
The Boys Up Front
Atlanta has put together one of the most intriguing offenses in the NFL this season. Through the first three weeks, head coach/offensive play caller Arthur Smith's myriad of personnel groupings and varied formations highlighted the strengths of the Falcons players while stressing opponent's defenses. Smith has said that he's been pleased with the development and evolution of the offense over the past year. One doesn't need to look much further than the offensive line to see why.
Atlanta's offensive line has been one of, if not the most maligned units over the past few seasons. But, early in this year, the group has put its stamp on the identity of the Falcons offense. And that identity starts with running the football. After three weeks, Atlanta ranks third in the NFL in rushing success rate (49%), third in rushing first downs (26), and fifth in both yards per game (156.7) and runs of 10-or-more yards (12). The club's 470 rushing yards through three weeks are the most since 2010 and Cordarrelle Patterson's 302 rushing yards are the most by a Falcon since Michael Turner put up 366 in 2008.
All of that starts up front.
Any offensive lineman will tell you they prefer to run block. It allows them to be the aggressor, to dictate the terms of engagement. One of the best ways to slow down a defense is to run the ball but it's not just about handing off and running into a wall. You have to be effective in order to make it work. The Falcons have excelled in that regard in 2022.
Atlanta's 4.9 yards per carry are the seventh-most in the NFL this season and its 96 rushes rank fifth. These stats aren't skewed by a few big plays here or there. The Falcons are making each run count and that's a testament to the blocking up front.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Falcons have the second-lowest percentage of runs with contact before the line of scrimmage at 27.1 percent. They also have the sixth-lowest stuff rate in the league (14.6 percent), runs that are stopped for no gain or a loss of yards.
The Falcons offensive line has been successful at winning and maintaining its blocks and the unit has also been able to create space for Atlanta's playmakers. Per Tru Media, the Falcons rank third in the NFL in yards before contact (2.63). They rank second in average yards gained before the runner comes within 1-yard of a defender at 2.14, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens. Atlanta's rushers also rank second in the NFL in average speed crossing the line of scrimmage at 11.23 mph, showing that they are getting to the line with a full head of steam and untouched.
Per Next Gen Stats, 63.5 percent of Atlanta's runs are blocked, meaning the Falcons have enough blockers to account for the number of defenders in the box. Defenses are starting to take notice of the Falcons rushing threat though as defenses are beginning to commit more defenders to the run. Only 28.1 percent of Atlanta's runs have been against light boxes, seven-or-fewer defenders in the tackle box, and Atlanta is averaging 6.57 blockers to 6.73 defenders.
This adjustment will be on full display against Cleveland on Sunday. The Browns have a defensive success rate of 54.1 percent on runs, the ninth-best in the NFL, but they've also faced the fifth-fewest rushes. Part of their defensive success against the run can be attributed to the fact that they like to stack the box. Cleveland has played with eight-or-more defenders in the box on 24.6 percent of runs, the seventh most in the NFL. They've played with loaded boxes, more defenders than blockers in the box, at the second-highest rate in the league this season (49.2 percent).
By overloading the box on nearly half run plays, the Browns have limited opponents to just 1.3 yards before contact per carry and 3.0 yards after contact per carry. Only 11.5 percent of carries have gone for 10+ yards and the Browns defense has stuffed 21.3 percent of runs. They've gotten contact before the line of scrimmage on 39.3 percent of rushes.
Atlanta will need to find ways to run the ball because the Browns are built to rush the passer. Per Pro Football Focus, Cleveland's Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney have posted pass rush grades of 92.2 and 89.7 respectively. Garrett owns a pass rush win rate of 20.2 percent while Clowney's sits at 18.4. The duo has combined for five sacks, two quarterback hits, and 14 hurries through three games.
While those numbers are certainly daunting, this is what makes the NFL so awesome. How will the offense adjust to the opposing defense and vice versa? The Falcons have done a good job of mixing things up this season to attack each opponent differently. Sometimes you have to pass to set up the run and one of the ways Atlanta attacked Seattle shows how they might put the Browns in a bind as well.
Airing It Out
In Week 3 the Falcons boasted another impressive rushing performance, but they also showed they have the ability to stretch a defense vertically by going to the air. Quarterback Marcus Mariota led the NFL in air yards per target (11.5), completion percentage above expectation (+14.2), and expected points added per dropback (0.65) in Week 3. He also led the NFL in total pass EPA (14.9), which was the seventh-best single-game performance by a QB this season, trailing only Patrick Mahomes (Week 1), Justin Herbert (Week 1), Tua Tagovailoa (Week 2), Lamar Jackson (Week 2), Trevor Lawrence (Week 2), and Josh Allen (Week 2).
Those marks were all significant improvements over the first two games for Mariota, but a closer look at how he reached them shows how Atlanta is willing to change things up to pressure the defense. In the first two games, only 10.2 percent of Mariota's throws were classified as 'tight windows' or throws where the targeted receiver has less than 1 yard of separation when the pass arrives. In Week 3, the former Heisman Trophy winner increased that number to 25 percent. Showing his growing confidence in both his ability to connect on challenging throws and the confidence he has in his playmakers to come down with the ball.
While he's shown his willingness to throw into tight coverage, Mariota isn't forcing the ball. In Week 3, 35 percent of his throws were 'open', passes where the targeted receiver has 3+ yards of separation when the pass arrives, as compared to 37.3 percent over the first two weeks. Combining the willingness to make the difficult throws with the intelligence to take what the defense is giving him, Mariota has begun to open up the Falcons passing attack.
After limited success with deep passing in the first two games, Mariota was 4-for-8 with a +16.3 CPOE on throws of 20+ air yards and averaged 29.6 air yards per attempt on deep throws in Week 3. He was willing to cut it loose as 37.5 percent of those throws were into tight windows.
According to PFF, Mariota has posted an 84.2 grade on deep throws, with two of his 20-plus yard passes being classified as Big Time Throws "a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window,"
Through the first three weeks, Mariota has posted his highest completion percentage (63.3), CPOE (+3.2), yards per attempt (8.1), air yards per attempt (10.1), and EPA per dropback (0.10) since Next Gen Stats began tracking those stats in 2016. He has also attempted his highest percentage of deep passes (15.2 percent) and throws to wide-open targets (21.5 percent) – targets where the receiver has 5+ yards of separation from the nearest defender when the pass arrives – over that span.
Analyzing Mariota's performance over the first three weeks of the season through the advanced metrics of Next Gen Stats illustrates how he has grown as a player and how Arthur Smith has grown as a coach and play-caller. Smith's understanding of Mariota's strengths has led to the quarterback getting off to one of the best starts of his career.
Running the Rock
Cordarrelle Patterson is off to quite the start in 2022. Last week in Seattle, he set a new single-game career high with 141 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries and earned his first-career NFC Offensive Player of the Week award in the process. In the win, Patterson averaged a league-leading and career-high 8.3 yards per carry, becoming the first Falcons running back to average more than eight yards per carry (min. 15 attempts) in a game since Michael Turner in Week 17 of the 2011 season.
On his longest rush of the year – a 40-yard scamper in the third quarter – the 31-year-old running back reached 20.7 miles per hour, per Next Gen Stats. That's the fastest speed recorded by a Falcon this year and the fourth-fastest by a running back this season. Only Saquon Barkley (21.1 mph), Tony Pollard (21.1 mph) and Joe Mixon (21.1 mph) have recorded faster times.
The 10th-year veteran has been running the ball at a steady, successful clip this season. Entering Week 4, Patterson is averaging 6.16 yards per carry, which is the most by a Falcon through the first three weeks of a season since Devonta Freeman averaged 6.31 in 2016. Additionally, he leads the NFL with 19 total first downs gained and 17 rushing first downs, which is the second-most by a Falcon since the stat began being tracked in 1991, trailing only Michael Turner's 18 in 2008.
It's not as if Patterson's yards per carry average has benefitted from a handful of splash plays mixed in with carries of zero or negative yards either. Per TruMedia, 51.8 percent of Patterson's 49 carries have gone for at least five yards – the second-highest percentage in the NFL (min. 30 attempts) – while he's only been stopped for zero or negative yards on 8.2 percent of his carries – the second-lowest percentage in the league this season. He also has nine carries of 10-plus yards, tied for the second-most in the NFL in 2022.
So far this year, Patterson has rushed for at least 120 yards and a touchdown twice, having done so in Week 1 against New Orleans and last week against Seattle. While it's asking a lot, if he happens to do so again on Sunday, he would become the fourth player to rush for at least 120 yards and a touchdown in three of his team's first four games of a season in NFL history, joining Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Brown (1958; 1963), Earl Campbell (1979) and O.J. Simpson (1975).
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Cleveland Browns.