Inconsistency is one of the few things that the Atlanta Falcons have done consistently so far this season. It's been difficult for players and coaches to pinpoint one specific culprit as it seems to be a different set of circumstances each week that have resulted in the club's current predicament at 1-7. In these situations, silver linings seem like a bit of polish on an unsightly, well you get the idea.
That isn't the case with this team though.
There are positives to take from the first half of the 2019 season that, despite being in the throes of a six-game losing streak, show what this team is capable of. It's hard to appreciate those when the results are what they are but using Next Gen Stats let's take a look at a few of the things that Atlanta can use to build on as they tackle the second half of the 2019 season.
A quick glance at the stat sheet and most people will be able to discern that Austin Hooper is putting together an impressive campaign. The 2018 Pro Bowler is on pace for a career year, logging 52 catches for 591 yards with five touchdowns. He set a career-high in scores when he hauled in a 1-yard touchdown from Matt Schaub in Atlanta's Week 8 game against Seattle. Hooper's accumulated the second-most receptions and yards of his career in just eight games and he continues to trend upward.
Hooper has nine straight games with at least four receptions dating back to last season. That is the longest active streak by a tight end. He's also notched two of his three career 100-yard games this season. For a Falcons team that has been battling inconsistency all season long, Hooper has been a beacon of reliability.
The former Stanford standout ranks fifth in the NFL in receptions. That puts him in the company of vaunted pass catchers like New Orleans' Michael Thomas, Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, and reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman. Hooper has pulled down 52 of the 62 passes thrown his way this season for a catch percentage of 83.9. Of the NFL's top-10 pass catchers, that mark trails only running back Austin Ekeler (91.1). Of course, Ekeler is averaging just .5 air yards per target compared to Hooper's 6.9.
Next Gen Stats pins Hooper's expected catch percentage, the average completion probability when he is the target receiver, at 75.2 percent. In reality, he is 8.7 percentage points higher than expected which shows he possesses the ability to make contested catches. Matt Ryan is fond of saying that the Falcons offense likes its matchups in the passing game and Hooper's production is one reason why.
Among the top-10 receivers in the NFL, Hooper's catch rate above expectation trails only Thomas. Hooper stands alone among tight ends in that he's been targeted more than anyone other than Kansas City's Travis Kelce and Philadelphia' Zach Ertz, 65 and 64 targets, respectively, but he's also catching passes at a higher rate. Only San Francisco's George Kittle compares in catch percentage and catch rate above expectation but he trails Hooper by 13 targets.
Although he will be the first person to tell you to slow your roll with this comparison, Hooper has been linked to Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez in his aggressiveness at the point of the catch. Gonzalez was famous for his basketball background and you could see that in the way he would box out defenders and use his body to secure the ball. Hooper, who grew up playing baseball, credits his experience on the diamond with helping him train to use his body to go get the ball instead of waiting for it to come to him.
Hooper grew up catching a small ball moving very fast. Utilizing that skillset and mentality, he's become one of the NFL's most reliable pass catchers. The margin for error is razor thin in the NFL and Hooper attacking the ball is often the difference between a catch and an incompletion, a first down or a failed third-down conversion, touchdown or field goal. Take a look at the post below from the Falcons Instagram account of Hooper's touchdowns. Look closely at the two touchdowns against the Colts and his score against the Seahawks.
Watch the way he squares his body and then reaches out to snatch the football. It's absolutely reminiscent of the way Gonzalez would box out defenders at the sticks on a third down or in the end zone. That aggressiveness is one of the reasons he's catching almost nine percent more passes than Next Gen Stats expects.
A testament to the hard work that Hooper has put in since entering the NFL, he has seen a steadily increasing role in the offense and has been a key piece in the unit's evolution over the last four seasons. Hooper told The CW 69 Atlanta's Dave Archer that he's not just being targeted more frequently but with Dirk Koetter's arrival as offensive coordinator, he is being used in a different capacity this season attacking the middle of the field more frequently.
He is in the midst of a breakout year, but Hooper began his ascendance in the second half of last season. His catch percentage has steadily climbed, as have his targets per route. Perhaps his biggest jump in 2019 has been his yards per route run. Hooper is averaging 2.1 receiving yards for every route that he's run this season, up from 1.4 yards per route in each of his first three seasons.
This is significant for a couple of reasons. It shows that not only is he being targeted more frequently but he is an efficient target for the Falcons offense. They are getting bang for their buck when throwing to Hooper. The other reason is that Julio Jones has led the NFL in that stat for each of the last four seasons. Jones currently ranks 10th (2.33) while Hooper sits 22nd among qualify players. The Falcons are one three teams to feature two players averaging more than 2 yards per route run.
Hooper's rise, along with the play of Calvin Ridley and Freeman's involvement in the passing game has taken some of the pressure off Jones while also stressing defenses in how they are going to cover the Falcons.
Stuff 'em, Stop 'em
Grady Jarrett has been nothing short of the epitome of what it means to be a Falcon. From living Falcons owner and chairman Arthur Blank's core values off the field to the consistent effort and performance he brings every down on the field, Jarrett has been among the Falcons best decisions. He was rewarded for that with a four-year extension, but as he said after the ink dried on that contract, he is still hungry and he's done yet.
Despite Atlanta's inconsistent play on defense, Jarrett stands out. The fifth-year man from Conyers, Ga., has been among the best run defenders in the league as leads the NFL with 14 stuffs, tackles made on run plays resulting in no gain or a loss of yardage. Jarrett is recording a stuff on 7.3 percent of his 192 snaps in run defense.
Jarrett also ranks among the league leaders with 30 defensive stops, tackles that result in a successful play for the defense based on the yards the offense needs to gain by down – 40 percent of the necessary yardage on first down, 50 percent on second down, or a conversion on third or fourth down. Stops are essential to the Falcons defensive scheme in that limiting the offenses successful plays put them behind the chains and force long third-down attempts.
His 30 defensive stops rank tied for eighth in the NFL this season, but this is were we can glean a little more about Jarrett's importance with Next Gen Stats. He has totaled 44 tackles on 396 defensive snaps, recording a tackle on 11.1 percent of his plays.
That may not look all that impressive at face value, but consider this; Jarrett has rushed the passer on 192 of those snaps – barring a screen, the quarterback running, or a play where he comes out of the stack to chase down a ball carrier, most Jarrett's tackles are coming in the run game. With that in mind, 30 of his 44 total tackles have resulted in a successful play for the defense. Jarrett is successful on 68.2 percent of his tackles, that's efficient play.
Among players with at least 35 tackles, Jarrett ranks tied for second in what we'll call tackle efficiency – stops per tackle. We may have just made that stat up, but here's the company he shares, San Diego's Joey Bosa (69 percent), New England's Jamie Collins (68.2), Cincinnati's Sam Hubbard (68.2), Minnesota's Danielle Hunter (64.1).
The Falcons have several defenders who have scored well in tackle efficiency. Joining Jarrett among the league leaders is Tyeler Davison (60 percent). De'Vondre Campbell checks in at 43 percent with Deion Jones right behind at 42 percent. If the Falcons can find a way to get their overall efficiency up, they can force more third-and-long situations, which would improve the unit's overall third-down defense.
In addition to his impressive play against the run, Jarrett has also been one of Atlanta's best performing pass rushers. The former Clemson Tiger utilizes his leverage to slash his way into the backfield, which has been a key to his success. On 191 pass rush snaps, Jarrett has recorded 13 quarterback pressures, three sacks, and 27 total disruptions – a players total of hurries, pressures or sacks (one per play).
Jarrett ranks second among all defensive tackles in disruptions, trailing only Aaron Donald, but Jarrett has 74 fewer pass rush snaps than the two-time reigning defensive player of the year. That's more than a full game worth of plays where Donald has rushed the passer compared to Jarrett. Maybe comparisons between Jarrett and Donald aren't so crazy.
After setting a career high with 6.0 sacks in 2018, Jarrett is on pace to match that total with a team-high three sacks through eight games this year. He has averaged 4.11 seconds from snap to sack on those three plays and he has sacked Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, and Russell Wilson this season.
The first half of the 2019 seasons hasn't gone the way the Falcons coaches, players, or fans anticipated. With a week to rest and recover both mentally and physically, the Falcons will need to build on what players like Hooper and Jarrett have done through the first eight games change their fortunes.