The Falcons were very good at defending the middle of the field in 2011.
"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." -- Sun Tzu
Last year the Atlanta Falcons finished 10-6, and earned a spot in the Playoffs as a wild card team. During Divisional play last year, the Falcons finished with a record of 3-3, including a sweep of the Carolina Panthers.
However, after a disappointing playoff defeat, the Falcons hired two new coordinators, OC Dirk Koetter, and DC Mike Nolan. So while the Falcons may look different from past seasons, there is still some knowledge that can be gleaned from their tendencies in 2011.
All stats attributed to Football Outsiders.
Last year Matt Ryan had a banner year on offense, throwing for 29 TD's with only 11 INT's, 4011 yards, and a completion percentage of 62%. He was aided by the ever-steady Michael Turner who rushed for 1349 yards and 11 TD's, and the WR duo of Roddy White (100 rec. 1296 yds. 8 TD's & 13.0 YPC) and rookie Julio Jones (54 rec. 959 yds. 8 TD's & 17.8 YPC).
In order to take advantage of their new-found prowess in the passing game, the Falcons lined up in an 11 personnel grouping (3 WR's) 43% of plays, with a DVOA of 24.6%, passing the ball 76% of the time. The Dirty Birds had success spreading their opponents out, as most defenses were unable to cover Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Harry Douglas completely. Matt Ryan did a very good job spreading the ball around, as only 20% of his passes were attempted for #1 WR Roddy White, which was tied for first in the NFL with the Dolphins.
Mike Mularkey and the Falcons operated under a 21 personnel grouping 20% of snaps, with a DVOA of 18.5%, running the ball nearly 60% of plays, mainly operating out the I formation, and it's strong and weak cousins.
However, the Falcons struggled out of a 12 personnel grouping, utilizing it only 13% of snaps, with a horrible DVOA of -43.0%, even with reasonably balanced playcalling--42% runs. Backup TE is an area of weakness for the Falcons, as backup TE Michael Palmer logged only 10 catches for 72 yards last year. Two TE formations don't play a big role in Mike Mularkey's offense, and it appears as if they won't under Dirk Koetter.
Shifting from past years, the Falcons only ran the ball 41% of downs, which was 17th in the NFL. The Falcons often looked to establish the run in the first half of games, running it 45% of snaps in the first half (10th in the NFL), and 56% of first downs (8th in the NFL). Mularkey's gameplan largely involved getting the Falcons into favorable position for an easy third down conversion; something that might transition to next season.
Interestingly enough, the Falcons only ran the ball 56% of downs in power situations (i.e., 3rd & 2, or from the opponents 3 yard line), 19th in comparison to other NFL teams. Furthermore, the Falcons largely abandoned the running game when losing in the second half, running only 23% of downs, which was 30th in the NFL last season. Another one sided tidbit, the Falcons ran the ball 96.3% of their snaps from the shotgun set, most in the NFL.
Operating in 3 Wide Receiver sets 51% of snaps, the Falcons were able to have their greatest success against opponents nickel defenses (29% of snaps) with a DVOA of 33.1%, meanwhile, when faced against a base 4-3 Defense (44% of snaps), the Falcons Offense had struggles, accumulating a DVOA of -9.4%.
Two trends that will likely change in 2012: the Falcons ran less than 1 RB Screen a game in 2011, and utilized play action only 17% of snaps (17th in the NFL).
Improving the pass rush, and originating exotic blitzes should be able to force Ryan into making errant throws, and force him away from the deep ball.
The Falcons Defense was mildly successful last year, finishing 12th in the NFL in total yards. Pass rushers Jon Abraham and Ray Edwards return, while Sean Weatherspoon looks to pick up where he left off in 2012. The Secondary is stacked, as Brent Grimes, Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson, Thomas DeCoud, and William Moore comprise one of the top units in the NFC.
Last year the Falcons spent 46% of downs in their base 43 Defense, holding opponents to a meager -22.1% DVOA. Secondly, the Falcons lined up in a nickel defense 44% of downs, allowing a -1.3% DVOA. Opposing Offenses mainly lined up in an 11 personnel against the Falcons (44% of snaps), which was the most successful alignment, as opponents accrued a 5.0% DVOA.
The Falcons were very strong against 12 personnel groupings (24% of plays), logging a -31.6% DVOA. Likewise, the Falcons had the top defense for defending deep passes over the middle of the field last year, with a DVOA of -60.8%, amassing 4 INT's on deep passes over the middle. Part of this can be attributed to Brian Van Gorder's defense which tends to drop it's LB's in coverage, as well as the talented players such as Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon taking away underneath passes, forcing QB's to put a lot of touch on their passes. With Mike Nolan at the helm, and the departure of Lofton, and the emergence of Akeem Dent, the Defense might look to alter the utilization of their LB Corps.
Under Van Gorder, the Falcons did their fair share of blitzing, blitzing 26.4% of downs (8th in the NFL), as well as Zone Blitzes, which the Falcons called 11.2% of all snaps, second in the entire NFL. Consequentially, OLB Sean Weatherspoon was tied for second on the team with 4.0 sacks, while DE Jon Abraham dropped back in coverage more than any Defensive Lineman in the NFL. With the new regime, the Falcons may look to increase the number of blitzes, especially so with the extremely capable secondary covering the back end.
As a side note, the Falcons Defense only spent 2% of downs in Dime Defense, however, they were extremely ineffective surrendering almost 9 yards per play as well as a 96.8 DVOA.
It looks as if the best option for surmounting the Falcons Defense is spreading them out, and protecting the QB, giving him time to find an open target.
All in all, the Falcons are an extremely solid football team, and if the players are able to assimilate to their new schemes, the Falcons should be able to improve upon their successes of last year.