Advanced Metrics and Falcons Decision Making


The Atlanta Falcons have made a slew of moves in altering the complexion of the coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball, changes that are necessary. With a new offensive coordinator and new offensive line coach, the Falcons are looking at ways to get the most out of the pieces they currently have in addition to the new players that will join the team in coming weeks. The two coaches that I’m talking about here are going to try to do a better job than their predecessors.

Mike Mularkey was much maligned by the Falcons faithful for his very predictable play calling, and seeming inability to get the most out of a Falcons lineup consisting of All-Pro talent. Paul Boudreau, the former offensive line coach, is expected to bring this unit together, get them to protect, open up holes, and play better as a whole unit. Granted the loss of Harvey Dahl was detrimental to the offensive line’s success, and also affected Mularkey’s effectiveness, but better play along the line is necessary.

All of these things were recognized by Falcons fans the world ’round, but we have advanced statistics to back these thoughts up. Now I have never been the biggest fan or greatest expert of advanced statistics (quarterback rating is about as in-depth as I ever go), but as of late I have taken to perusing that arena.  And the advanced stats provided by Football Outsiders helps to prove that the Falcons playcalling was not up to par with the rest of the NFL, and certainly not good for the offensive line. These statistics are built to compute how good or bad an offensive line is, not necessarily how good or bad a running back or quarterback is.

First, lets look at the running stats. This team which we have declared to be based on “power running” and possessing the football is 22nd in the league in power success, which refers to success on power run plays. Is this Michael Turner’s fault, the offensive line’s or Mike Mularkey’s? A statistic that FO has created is Adjusted Line Yards, which credits the line with creating opportunities or not creating opportunities for the running backs. Based on the Adjusted Line Yards, Atlanta’s offensive line had a 3.84 number in this category. Our yards per carry for our running backs was 4.23. What does this tell us? It says that our running backs were doing more to create yards than our linemen were. Most running backs will create and gain yards further than are opened by the line. But the gap is significant between these two categories for the Falcons, and that is not a good thing.

But how can playcalling be observed through statistics, and how can we determine that the runs of one yard or no gain on first and second down by Michael Turner was not effective? Football Outsiders has helped us with that too. By observing the NFL’s official play-by-play of each game, the stats guys at FO have created an Adjusted Line Yards number by direction of each run. They label Left End, Left Tackle, Middle/Guard, Right Tackle, and Right End as directions of running. Using Adj. Line Yards by run direction, we can determine how effective each position was. The Falcons were 12th, 26th, 21st, 9th, and 28th in the league in each direction, respectively based on Adj. Line Yards. Guess which positions were the biggest problems for the Falcons this season in the running game? Thats right, Left Tackle (Sam Baker & Will Svitek), Center (McClure & Joe Hawley), and Right Guard (Reynolds, Hawley, Baker, etc.). The holes or weak points on the line are making themselves more apparent as we go through the statistics.

To bring these offensive line statistics full circle, we will look at how often the Falcons ran in each direction. Again, I will express these going from Left End to Right End but the FO directions: 13%, 14%, 45%, 13%, 14%. Which direction was the ball run the very most? Right up the middle where we ranked 21st in Adj. Line Yards. In addition runs off the Left Tackle and off the Right End were less than successful, and were utilized just as much as extremely effective runs off the RT and the Left End.

Based on all of that you could tell the Falcons struggled in run blocking, but one more stat needs to be noted to get a full picture of how bad things got on this line very quickly. In the first table, there is a stuffed percentage, which notes the percentage of plays where the RB is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. The league average is 19%. The Falcons had a whopping 25%, which was tied for dead last in the NFL. What we saw from the Falcons play callers and felt from the huge numbers of plays where Turner hit the line and fell over for a loss or no gain is now substantiated by statistical analysis as well as our gut feelings. The nail was put in Mike Mularkey’s coffin long ago.

The one area where the Falcons offensive line statistically excelled was in the pass protection section. The Adjusted Sack Rate is also the amount of sacks and intentional groundings per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. I was absolutely floored to see that the Falcons were seventh in the league in this category at 5.1%, and Matt Ryan was only sacked 26 times. While those stats are fairly eyeopening, they do not depict the whole picture. By understanding that the Falcons ran for no gain, a loss, or a very short gain A WHOLE LOT on first and second down, we know what Mularkey would dial up. A quick passing route combo, a check-down, very few times were there big plays on third down, due to the fact that there was such a significant number of third-and-long situations the Falcons were presented with. Then how did the Falcons allow such a low (as if any number of sacks is low) number of sacks over the course of the season? Its because the line allowed opponents to hit the heck out of Matt Ryan. Stats provided here by show that Matt was hit 84 times, good for 7th in the league. Only 6 teams gave up more QB hits than the Falcons. So we can safely credit Ryan for at least getting the ball out of his hands quickly to avoid the sack.

It would also behoove Falcons fans and Ryan detractors alike to look at the quarterback stats provided by Football Outsiders. It has Matt Ryan ranked 7th in Defensive-adjusted Yards Above Replacement as well as in Defense-adjusted Value over Average. DYAR adjusts a quarterbacks passing for good defenses vs. bad defenses, and how much better he would be than a replacement qb (Chris Redman). For example, if Ryan threw 200 yards against the Vikings, that would count as less than 200 yards against, say, the Eagles due to their pass rush and great talent at the corner position. DVOA analyzes the percentage of effectiveness he is than a replacement or average QB. FO does a better job explaining these stats than I do, but the fact that Ryan is so effective even when compared to other QBs in the league even with this rather porous offensive line says a lot about the man we have lining up under center. I’ve said it before, but Ryan is a very good quarterback, and I believe he will continue to grow. Highlighting this play that is better than his standard stats even indicate are his Effective Yards, which is 4800, well above his 4100 yards, saying that he played much better than the stats on alone would lead one to believe.

I am not an expert at statistics, and not an expert at interpreting or compiling the stats, but I think that a little investigative analysis was necessary for this team. Through statistics we found how bad Mike Mularkey’s play calling was,   how ineffective the offensive line play was, and just how good Matt Ryan played in the 2011 season. With a new playcaller, new offensive line coach, new cogs in the positions that we struggled in from through free agency or the draft, and allowing Matt Ryan to go no-huddle more often this team’s offense really has nowhere to go but up. It also supports the front office’s decision to have a wholesale replacement of most of the offensive coaching staff. Tyson Clabo, Justin Blalock, and Matt Ryan are three players this franchise will have and can depend upon for at least the next 5 years, but what else is added will make or break this franchise while the window of opportunity to win is still open.