March 4, 2021

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Any Given Sunday: Bears Over Falcons

6 min read
Any Given Sunday: Bears Over Falcons

Friends, I feel bad for fans of the Atlanta Falcons and the offense of the Atlanta Falcons. They are staples of this column, a talented quarterback and a few talented receivers stuck trying to caretake for a coaching staff that lives a consequence-free life of disappointment. Eventually the hot-seat articles start getting published and Dan Quinn reverse-engineers just enough out of his defense to deceive a gullible ownership group into thinking that next year, when (players are healthy or a new defensive mastermind is calling the plays), things are going to change around here

How that has unfolded as a whole on defense looks like this:

Atlanta Falcons Defense Through the Years
Year Def
Rk Pass Def
Rk Run Def
2020 4.5% 20 14.7% 17 -13.4% 17
2019 1.4% 17 12.4% 21 -14.0% 13
2018 12.5% 30 23.4% 30 -3.3% 26
2017 2.3% 17 13.7% 19 -14.3% 11
2016 3.6% 18 7.0% 16 -2.2% 27

It’s almost eerie how consistent things have been here, 2018 exempted as the year when the unit was besieged by more injuries than normal. This defense finds a way to be below average every season despite having Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, and Dante Fowler. This unit has first-rounders from 2020, 2017, and 2016 in A.J. Terrell, Takkarist McKinley, and Keanu Neal. (Terrell did not play Sunday after a positive COVID-19 test.)

In this particular game, there were three plays I want to focus on to talk about how the Falcons are bad and also how Mercedes-Benz Stadium was probably built over the wrong ancestor’s bones so that the defense was cursed

The Falcons allowed Mitch Trubisky to scramble 45 yards for a first down by having their blitzing safety (22, Neal) and stunting defensive tackle (97, Jarrett) hit the same gap at the same time, creating a pile-up. The admirable quit of 33 (Blidi Wreh-Wilson) to see the run coming and simply just keep following his receiver would be startling if you had never watched an Atlanta Falcons game before

Here’s one where they felt cursed:

Atlanta A) pressures the quarterback as Grady Jarrett gets past the center and forces an off-balance throw; B) has three defenders in the area around Jimmy Graham, all in front of the ball, and C) forces two fumbles on this play. They gave up 30 yards on the play on third-and-8. Every level of that defense worked. Except, you know, the results. Falcons defensive plays should come with Emil Cioran quotes attached to them. In fact, let’s add one:

This play came with a 26-16 lead and 4:21 to play. Maybe you think it would work out better if Isaiah Oliver (26) — don’t pay attention to how I misspelled it because I care as much as Oliver did on this play — just tried to tackle Allen Robinson down. You might be right. But the Falcons have long since moved beyond the need to play by the traditional NFL rules.

The Bears had two other touchdowns taken off the board in this game — one the referees ruled an interception when Robinson and Darqueze Dennard both seemed to come down with the ball at the same time, the other a fourth-down touchdown strike to Miller that was overturned on replay. Atlanta’s defense somehow still found a way.

Where the Game Swung

Chart 1


Where the Game Swung
Description Time CHI GWC
Tashaun Gipson INT 1:14 Q4 51.6% 99.0% +47.4%
Anthony Miller TD catch 2:00 Q4 39.9% 61.8% +21.9%
Allen Robinson TD catch 4:29 Q4 6.5% 24.5% +18.0%
ATL 3-and-out, all passes 4:21 Q4 24.5% 38.6% +14.1%
63-yard bomb to Calvin Ridley 10:42 Q1 32.9% 23.1% -9.8%
Brian Hill 35-yard TD run 4:48 Q2 18.1% 9.9% -8.2%

I need to spotlight one section of this that isn’t just a single-play GWC% swing, and that’s the part where the Falcons have the ball with 5:32 left in the game and call a play-action pass and a screen on back-to-back plays. They follow up on the next drive by calling three straight pass plays, all of which are incomplete. The Bears had all three timeouts left, yes, but by giving them the chance to have those timeouts and/or misuse them, the Falcons did an excellent job of making sure that the Bears had pretty much all the time in the world to come back. Here’s what Dan Quinn had to say about that:

The nonchalant play-off of the question — like trusting a good NFL quarterback who was sacked twice and hit eight times in 38 dropbacks is beyond reproach — was magnificent. Quinn dismissed it with all the chutzpah of your grandfather defending the food at Olive Garden.

By the VOA


CHI -19.7% -14.2% -2.0% -7.5%
ATL -13.9% -19.7% -16.4% -10.5%

FO head honcho Aaron Schatz passed along a couple of time splits he found interesting:

Atlanta offensive VOA, Q1-3: 16.1%
Atlanta offensive VOA, Q4: -126.2%

Chicago offense VOA, Trubisky: -32.6%
Chicago offense VOA, Foles -6.1%.

Chicago’s defense was a bigger factor in the comeback than their offense. I have already seen multiple mentions of Trubisky being used like Taysom Hill because of this game. This is what you’ve done, Falcons.

What Does 3-0 Mean for the Chicago Bears?

Before the season, we projected the Chicago Bears to finish with a -3.1% DVOA, a -7.1% offensive DVOA, and a -3.6% defensive DVOA. Through three games, despite the 3-0 record, DVOA sees that they have … a -3.2% DVOA, with a worse offense than expected and a better defense than expected. Of course, our mean projection called for them to get 7.6 wins and they’re almost halfway there already. They boosted their playoff odds to 63.9%.

Almost nothing about this team actually seems changed from what we thought about them going into the season though. Neither Trubisky nor Foles has played well — Trubisky’s bones in Week 1 were made against one of the worst defenses in the NFL ever since Matt Patricia took over. Foles finished with fine traditional numbers, but those belied how poorly he looked on a majority of his throws. At any rate, it was merely a matter of when for Foles taking over. One major issue they continue to have is that the run offense looks ghastly against real opponents. They’re at -17.8% run offense DVOA, 19th in the league. David Montgomery has to cut five times behind the line of scrimmage to avoid losing yards on the Chicago run plays that don’t involve the quarterback scrambling through the middle of the field. (Remember, scrambles count as passing plays in DVOA now.)

The return of Akiem Hicks from injury and the additions of Robert Quinn and Jalyon Johnson, on the other hand, are threatening to bring this defense back to an elite unit. Johnson has plugged right in to Prince Amukamara’s role on the outside and been good out the gate, while Quinn — laughable contract and all — provides more edge threat than the Bears had with Leonard Floyd

This feels like a unit that is taking a step back towards what they were in 2018, when they finished No. 1 in defensive DVOA by over 10.0% points. They probably won’t be that good again — then-coordinator Vic Fangio is now Broncos head coach, while current coordinator Chuck Pagano isn’t exactly showing out a lot of schematic improvements from what he had before he was Colts head coach. But when you combine a good defense with a reasonable offense, you get a potential playoff team

It’s very easy as an outside analyst to disparage a team like this because, well, they have gotten some luck in close games! They’re not fun to watch play offense!

But they also have those three wins banked, and those aren’t going to get legislated away no matter how bad Foles and Trubisky look. It’s a little too early to go declaring a team a playoff favorite in Week 3, but you may want to sit down with your kids and prepare them for the possibility of playoff Nick Foles anchored behind a good defense and what that means for them.

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