Falcons' struggles start with soft pass defense

Eric Goska
For Press-Gazette Media
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Atlanta Falcons free safety Dwight Lowery (20) defends as Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd (15) makes the catch during the first half Sunday.

With Monday night a school night, here's a short quiz for students of football.

Quarterbacks who aspire to lead the NFL in yards per pass attempt should: a.) complete a greater percentage of passes; b.) complete longer passes; or c.) compete against the Atlanta Falcons on a weekly basis.

All of the above, you say?

Sorry, that's incorrect. Followers of pro football know no one gets more than a couple of cracks a season at the Falcons, except for those who do funny for a living and the occasional sportswriter who probably shouldn't.

Atlanta, Green Bay's opponent Monday night, has a defense with issues. Chief among them is its failure to limit the opposition to a reasonable net average per pass play, a struggle that dates to last season.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's unit has given up more yards (4,838) and more passing yards (3,419) than any other. At its current pace, it will set franchise records for generosity in both categories.

Despite the high totals, Atlanta's defense has not been subjected to as many plays (791) as some. The Titans (844) and six other teams have been hit with more. In addition, the Broncos (516) and 14 other clubs have had to defend more pass plays than the Falcons (446).

That explains the Falcons' high rates of return. Their 6.11 yards per play is second only to the Saints (6.12). Their 7.67 per pass play is in a class by itself.

Both numbers are disconcerting. The second perhaps more so because of its correlation to winning and losing.

Teams that permit a net of seven or more yards per pass play over the course of a season often flounder. Sixty-five teams have done so since 1970 and only five came up winners.

The Falcons have been there. They've given up an average of seven or more in 17 of their last 28 regular-season games going 4-13 (.235) when doing so.

No other team has been nicked more than 15 times since the 2013 season opener.

Teams that fail to achieve a higher net average per pass play than their opponent lose far more often than they win. This season those on the short end are a dismal 39-152-1 (.206).

Atlanta's high yield makes it difficult to win this battle.

Averages get fat when opponents complete a high percentage of passes. The Falcons' defense is middle of the road in this regard, ranking 13th.

Averages increase when opponents complete long passes. This season, Atlanta has surrendered 12 passes of 40 or more yards. That's more than every team except Philadelphia (15).

Averages decrease when opposing passers are dumped for losses. Here the Eagles (42) and all but the Raiders (13) have it over the Falcons who have recorded just 14 sacks.

Crunch the numbers and it is easy to see why Atlanta may break its team record for highest net yards per pass play allowed. That mark (7.67) was set in its second year of existence (1967) when it stumbled to a 1-12-1 record.

What's interesting about this year's team is the lack of top-flight quarterbacks it has faced. Drew Brees (7th) is the only one who could be found among the Top 15 after 13 weeks.

It's not a good sign either that Teddy Bridgewater (10.6), Andy Dalton (11.0), and Jay Cutler (10.0) all posted season-highs in average yards per attempt at Atlanta's expense. Of the three, only Dalton reached that level in a game elsewhere.

Monday the Falcons test their mettle against Aaron Rodgers. The Packers' quarterback is first in average yards per attempt (8.53) and has gone over 10 yards per attempt four times.

Having to contend with the NFL's top rated passer in his 50th regular-season start at Lambeau Field might be yet another way Atlanta's net yards per pass play swells in size.

Regular-season series

Overall: Green Bay leads 14-12

At Lambeau Field: Packers lead 5-3

Starting quarterbacks

Packers: Aaron Rodgers (67-32 overall; 1-2 vs. Atlanta)

Falcons: Matt Ryan (65-41; 2-2 vs. Green Bay)

Once a Falcon, now a Packer

There are no former Falcons on the Packers' roster.

Once a Packer, now a Falcon

There are no former Packers on the Falcons' roster.

Extended flyovers

Defenses that have given up the highest net average per pass play over the 28 regular-season games from opening day 2013 through Week 13 of this season. Also listed: the number of games in which the opposition posted a net average of seven yards or better.

Avg. Team No.

7.36 Falcons 17

7.10 Redskins 15

7.06 Bears 15

7.00 Cowboys 14

6.94 Raiders 14

6.74 Chargers 13

6.73 Jaguars 13

6.69 Rams 13

6.62 Buccaneers 10

— aegoska@sbcglobal.net

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