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The Falcons are the Lions of the South

Defensive tendencies and a less-than-stellar DB are the key to this game.

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Pity the poor Falcons fan, who mostly experiences crushing Lion-esque defeat in hilarious and embarrassing fashion. While they’ve made a couple of Super Bowls, they were crushed by the Terrell Davis and the Broncos in the first, and, well, just mention the words 28-3 to a Falcons fan if you want to hear about the second.

Also like the Lions, the current Falcons have an overmatched defensive mind at head coach in the form of Dan Quinn. Like the Lions, the Falcons have a pretty good offense led by a pretty good, though not great quarterback. And like the Lions, they have a habit of wasting generational talents at wide receiver.

The Very Standard Passing Offense

The Falcons are 0-3, but they’re better than that, and the offense is the reason. They’ve actually scored the sixth most points in the league, and for the most part, the Ryan/Ridley/Jones combination has been difficult to stop. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter may not be the wunderkind that former Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is (or former Atlanta QB coach Matt LaFleur for that matter), but the Falcons do have some smart tendencies. They lean heavily on the pass, they don’t run much on second-and-long, and they are not afraid to throw the ball down the field. Drew Brees is last in the NFL in air yards with 4.7 per attempt. Matt Ryan, on the other hand, is 4th in the league with 9.8, just ahead of Aaron Rodgers. This will be a very different game for the Packers and their corners, especially if Julio Jones (hamstring) is able to go.

While the Falcons are wise to lean heavily on the passing game, there are some indications that they lack sophistication elsewhere. They’re pass heavy but old-school. They are among the least likely teams to go for it on 4th down, and while they don’t run the ball much, they lean heavily on Todd Gurley as a “prototypical” three-down back. Gurley was signed to a one-year, $5.5 million contract, and while that’s not an expensive burden, he appears to be washed. At his peak, Gurley was a great dual threat, but this year he averages just 4 yards per carry, and has just 3 receptions for 3 yards. Backup Brian Hill was used sparingly in their first two games, but had a mini-breakout last week, and appears to be the superior back. That’s not really saying much.

The Falcons run game is completely conventional, and if they want to lean on it to do damage against the Packers, it will take a major change of offensive philosophy. This team is built to pass, and Calvin Ridley has been one of the league’s better receivers, especially by conventional metrics. When we get into advanced metrics, we start to see some cracks, including the biggest one: bad hands. Ridley has a lofty 16.6 yards per reception, but he’s catching just 60% of his passes which pushes his DVOA down into the 30s. Julio Jones has been playing with a bad hamstring all season, and may miss the game, and while his numbers are find in terms of Y/R and Catch%, he’s had several huge drops that have cost the team greatly.

Russell Gage has good hands, but he isn’t a big play threat, and he serves as more of a glorified checkdown receiver, while tight end Hayden Hurst is catching fewer than 60% of his passes. They have a good offense, but the lack of consistency means they flame out a few times per game, which should allow the Packers an opportunity to keep in front of them, especially given the state of the Atlanta defense.

Atlanta’s Highly Exploitable Secondary

Green Bay may enter this game without either Davante Adams (Hamstring) or Allen Lazard (core muscle surgery) fresh off of his breakout game. That’s a problem as the downgrade from Adams and Lazard to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Darrius Shepherd or Malik Taylor cannot be overstated. Fortunately, the Falcons are highly susceptible to exploitation from a creative coach, and Matt LaFleur should have no problem putting together an effective game plan. Whether the players execute on it is a different matter entirely, but even the backups shouldn’t have too many issues.

The key to understanding how to beat Atlanta’s defense, currently 20th by DVOA, and 17th against the pass, is all about right cornerback Isaiah Oliver. While the Saints and the Lions both play a ton of man-to-man defense, Atlanta is, like most NFL teams, more of a man-zone hybrid, playing man about 39% of the time. The Packer man-beaters will be limited here, but that’s OK because beating Atlanta’s secondary is way easier than all of that.

Oliver is one of the NFL’s worst corners, and because the Falcons keep their corners aligned to specific sides 87% of the time (according to the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac). You can always be pretty confident about where he’ll be. Since Oliver is always on the right side, you’d expect teams to succeed greatly throwing left, and they do. Atlanta is 24th (per Football Outsiders) when throwing left, and 29th when throwing to the middle. They are a respectable 14th when throwing right.

The recipe for beating Atlanta is pretty simple. They have some solid players, but their weaknesses stick out like a sore thumb. Green Bay should have success on the ground, and by getting the right receiver lined up left and in the slot, they should pick this defense apart.

A quick word about Allen Lazard

Lazard probably wouldn’t put up a 75% DVOA for the entire season, but it’s hard to understate just how valuable he has been so far, and was likely to be going forward. Last season, Geronimo Allison had 55 targets (about 10% of the team’s total targets) with a DVOA of -35.8%. Lazard had 52 targets (9%) at 14.5% DVOA.

This season, Lazard has received 24% of targets at a whopping 75.8% DVOA. Even if you think Lazard’s true talent is something more like 20%, much of the Packers’ dynamite offense so far this season can be credited to the change from Allison, literally the worst receiver in football, to Lazard, who is currently number one. Lazard’s target share completely replaced Allison, plus about a third of Jimmy Graham, at a huge efficiency upgrade.

Without Lazard the offense can’t help but take a step back. MVS is a low efficiency target, and Malik Taylor and Darrius Shepherd are unknowns at best. When Shepherd last saw time in Green Bay he had one of the most disastrous games in recent memory. The Packers should be able to survive Atlanta, especially if Adams plays, but make no mistake: losing Lazard is a bigger blow to the offense than you probably think.