Advanced Metrics on Why Atlanta Falcons O-Line Struggled in 2011


After the Atlanta Falcons drafted Center/Guard Peter Konz and Left Tackle prospect Lamar Holmes in the 2nd & 3rd rounds respectively, there was a bevy of talk about who could start immediately, who would be a starter down the road, and who if anyone who started in 2011 would not start in 2012. Nearly everything that I read had people pointing fingers at Sam Baker as an absolute liability in pass protection, and calling for his head on a platter (hyperbole for him being cut) but that the chaos at Right Guard was also a detrimental factor. While Ryan was only sacked 4 times more in 2011 than in 2010 (26 vs. 22), the fact remains that he was hit a lot more (84 vs. 69) and that even when he wasn’t getting his after delivering a pass there was significant pressure in his face.

I decided to set out and discover, through statistical analysis, what was the weak point in the Falcons offensive line, whether Right Guard or Left Tackle were the weak points on the offensive line (in both pass protection and the running game) and whether the Falcons would be better off in 2012 than in 2011 with the addition of Konz and no addition of a veteran LT. My hypothesis was that we would see significant weakness at LT & RG, but that the drop off in production would be more significant from the guard position rather than at LT. After all, a healthy Sam Baker started at LT in 2010 as opposed to an injured Baker and a backup in Will Svitek in 2011. This compared with a very strong lineman in Harvey Dahl who was replaced by a revolving door/sieve at RG. I hypothesized that RG would be definitively worse than LT.

Similar to the statistical analysis that I ran when I analyzed why the Falcons playcalling and offensive line combination led to the firing of Mike Mularkey and Brian Van Gorder, I turned to Football Outsiders for the statistics I did research on.

Lets look at the running stats. The Falcons have an identity as a “power running” and possessing the football. This team was 22nd in the league in power success, which refers to success on power run plays.  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. Basically 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.

After looking at the line as a whole and how effective (or ineffective the position was) we can look at the breakdown by position. Without throwing too many statistics at you, I will give you the ranking of Adjusted Line Yards by direction. By looking at the rundown of plays called in a game, we can glean how efficiently a team ran the ball in a certain direction. Those directions are Left End, Left Tackle, Mid/Guard (Football Outsiders does not have any way to differentiate runs behind LG, C, or RG) Right Tackle, and Right End. In 2011, the Falcons league ranking respectively was 12th, 26th, 21st, 9th, and 28th. Clearly we struggled in runs off LT, Mid/Guard, and RE. In order to see how we took a step back, we must compare those rankings against the 2010 rankings by direction.

The 2010 rankings, in the same direction order are as follows: 15th, 17th, 12th, 11th, and 13th. Stay with me here. If we take the league ranking difference between 2010 to 2011 the line rankings look like this: +3 spots in the NFL, -9, -9, +2, and -15. This shows whether our team was better when compared to the rest of the league, or worse in 2011 than in 2011. We were only slightly better at Left End and Right Tackle; we were significantly worse at Left Tackle and the Mid/Guard directions. I think that these are well summed up by the injury that Sam Baker sustained, the fact that Will Svitek was not a mauler as a replacement for Baker, and that there was a loss in talent when Dahl was allowed to leave in free agency. One thing that I have absolutely no way to explain is the monumental decline in blocking off the Right End, and area outside RT where Tyson Clabo is lining up at. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to it, and it mystifies me.

We also need to say one thing about this rankings. While it shows the efficiency of teams compared to other teams, it doesn’t necessarily reflect huge gains or losses in Adj. Line Yards by direction. For example, at Left End the Falcons rose 3 spots in rankings of ALY, but only increased that stat by .04 yards. Both Left Tackle and Mid/Guard dropped 9 spots in the rankings, but the true ALY numbers were not the same: LT was -.66 yards, and Mid/Guard was -.21 yards. It shows that you could stay exactly the same (which the Falcons clearly didn’t) but still move in the rankings relative to other teams.

I need to make one think clear here. There is no statistic for offensive linemen in pass protection. There is no way to point at one position and say ‘he surrendered this many sacks, hits, or QB pressures. If there are, I am not privy to them and for this lack of statistics I apologize. However there are no definitive offensive line stats. We do, however, have ways of inferring whether or not the line was giving up more hits and sacks as a unit, and then inferring who was the culprit of the majority of those negatives by the O-line. Lets look at some of those.

Football Outsiders has created a statistic named Adjusted Sack rate. It is better than a raw statistic of sacks divided by attempted passes, because it takes into account the increased likelihood of a sack on 3rd&Long, and whether or not an offense passes the ball a lot of not. According to this stat, the Falcons Adj. Sack rate was 4.1% in 2010. In 2011 it increased to 5.1%. That is almost a large increase from one year to the next. If you don’t buy into the Adj. sack rate statistic, I have the more raw numbers. In 2010 the Falcons had 571 attempted passes, and were sacked 22 times or 4% of all dropbacks. In 2011 Atlanta attempted 566 passes and surrendered 26 sacks, good for a sack on 4.6% of passes. The same thing can be done with QB Hits. The Falcons allowed Ryan to get hit 69 times in 2010 or 12% of all passes. They allowed him to get hit 84 times in 2011, or 14% of the time. That is a huge jump.

A very telling statistic is Offensive Efficiency Variance. This statistic tells the reader how consistently successful a team was in their offense. It does not talk about the offensive line’s efficiency in particular, but an offense is only as good as its line is. The Variance stats talks about whether a team is better or worse from game to game. In 2010 and 2011 the Falcons were in the top-3 or consistency, meaning that they were outstandingly consistent in their offensive production from week to week. I think that shows that Svitek/Baker and Hawley/Reynolds at RG were both consistently bad all season long, and that players played better despite them, and when they played well the team didn’t necessarily take advantage of it. We got consistency from our team, but we need consistently good play, not consistently bad play.

I think there are several things that we can conclude from all of this statistical analysis. First, while we can’t tell exactly where pressure and sacks came from in pass protection, we can tell where the weak spots were in the running game. I don’t think it’s too far a leap to think that the same people who struggled in the run game were the people who gave up pressure in the passing game. Those were Right Guard and Left Tackle. I still have no explanation for the lack of success running the ball off the Right End, but that might just have something to do with Michael Turner not being very successful on stretch run plays. But that’s another conversation.

We can also see that it was a perfect storm for pressure on Ryan. Baker was never spectacular in 2010 or earlier, but we rarely heard his name called, and that is a testament to his ability to simply get the job done. He was never going to go to the pro-bowl, but he was solid. He wasn’t healthy in 2011 and gave up a lot of pressures. Just from watching the games, I think that he gave up more sacks and hits than the slew of players who played RG. However, we can’t hang this all on him. While Baker was not particularly stout when blocking for Ryan, that doesn’t the the guards off the hook. Having pressure up the middle towards a quarterback is one of the most difficult things to overcome; if a tackle is blocking a defensive end around the edge, the quarterback can step up in the pocket to avoid that pressure. However, if there is a Defensive tackle who mauled the Right Guard assigned to block him, Ryan would have no place to step up and deliver the ball. More often than not, this was the case, and Ryan took the hit from the defensive end he couldn’t see, as a result of the pressure up the middle of the defensive line that he COULD see. The decision to let Dahl walk in free agency was a calculated one, but the Falcons in no way could have predicted the injury to Baker and the huge void that Dahl would leave in his wake.

It also makes out job more difficult to separate which position was weaker because Dahl was lost and Baker was injured for the exact same season. If we could isolate them and see how the Falcons fared with a healthy Baker and no Dahl, or a hurt Baker while retaining Dahl, we would have a better idea of who the true culprit is here. As a result, we guess and toss all the blame on the LT, the easiest position to point the finger at. The Falcons can be successful next season if Baker is healthy. I’m not happy about it, but he could get the job done for at least one more season, but only if he is healthy. A line of Baker, Blalock, McClure, Konz and Clabo looks a lot stronger than the 2011 edition. With guys not able to rush up the middle and get to Ryan, it makes Sam Baker or Will Svitek’s job at LT a whole lot easier. While I am not completely sold on the LT position the way it is, having only one offensive line position to worry about in 2012 is a whole lot better than two or three.

Update: I do think one thing that could help explain the horrible running off the Right End and up the Mid/Guard direction could be the loss of Mughelli in Week 6 vs. the Panthers. Unfortunately, I currently have no way to separate the line statistics by week or in a  before Ovie/post Ovie Falcons team. The only thing that would lead me to believe that his loss has nothing to do with it is the fact that the Falcons were very effective running to the Left End, which would almost certainly mean worse numbers on both ends without Mughelli. The second player that would affect the statistics that I did not mention when I originally published this post was the games that we were missing Todd McClure. McClure missed three full games, and parts of one more. Having Joe Hawley start at C and Garrett Reynolds playing RG certainly hurt our chances of runs up the Mid/Guard direction. The games that those players missed must be taken into account, but I’m not completely sure the loss of Mughelli hurt this team as much as we may believe. I would agree with any opinions that said the Falcons suffered when McClure was not on the line. However, these are my thoughts, and you are welcome to challenge my conclusions and introduce any other information I have overlooked.