So far, so good for the Atlanta Falcons.
A team that has underperformed the last three seasons despite their tremendous talent on offense, the Falcons have made it through the first quarter of the season with a 3-1 record and with the league’s most prolific offense. This Sunday, they face their biggest test of the season so far, on the road to face a 4-0 Denver team that is one of the league’s best defensive units.
Just about any way you slice it, Atlanta has the best offense in the NFL. The team has totaled the most total yards in the league thus far, 100 more than the second place Arizona Cardinals. They've score the most points in the league as well, 38 per game and 7 more than the second place Philadelphia Eagles. Even advanced metrics, such as Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA), a stat which measures when and how yards and points are accumulated and compares it to a league average, has the Falcons atop the league.
It starts at QB with Matt Ryan, who underachieved by his own standard the last three years but has had a revival of sorts in 2016. Ryan is the NFL leader in completion percentage, yards and touchdowns, as well as more detailed stats such as adjusted net yards per pass (ANY/A) which factor in sacks, and QBR and passer rating. An important factor in Ryan’s success is the sheer athleticism and ability of Julio Jones, the All-pro wide receiver. Jones has picked up where he left off last season, racking up 488 yards through four games to lead the league, including an unbelievable 12-catch, 300-yard performance last week against the Carolina Panthers.
Mid-week comments from Denver seem to indicate that their vaunted defense is unimpressed with Jones’ performance against Carolina. When asked about the challenge, edge rusher and captain Von Miller heaped praise on his defense without even mentioning Jones.
“We’ve got the best secondary in the National Football League,” Miller told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “That’s where it starts. That’s where the confidence comes from. These guys are walking around and they know there is not a receiving corps that can go against them.”
Miller and the Broncos defense talk a big talk, but it comes from a place of genuine confidence. The defense is the most talented in the league, fourth in fewest yards allowed and fifth in defensive DVOA. Their success as a unit stems from their stifling pass defense. The defense allows only 169.5 yards per game, amazing if you consider that the opponent is almost always trailing. Add that to the five interceptions they’ve already forced and it becomes clear why opposing QBs have a pathetic 61.3 QB Rating against the Broncos.
The success of the defense comes from the pass defense, but the success of the pass defense comes from the unstoppable pass rush Denver can generate without blitzing. Denver has 17 sacks and 26 QB pressures already in the young season, and the fact that they can lean on the talents of Derek Wolfe (4.0 sacks) and Von Miller (5.5 sacks) allows them to drop into coverages that are nearly impossible to throw against.
Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons are going to have their hands full on Sunday trying to navigate the tough Broncos defense. The game may come down to big plays and who generates more of them. Atlanta leads the league in 20+ yard plays, creating 24 already, mostly through the air. Conversely, the team has also conceded 20 of the same such plays on defense, indicating that it’s sometimes all or nothing for the team.
Despite possibly starting rookie Paxton Lynch at quarterback for Trevor Siemian, Denver should have no trouble moving the ball against Atlanta. The question is whether Atlanta can put up a crooked number against this Denver defense, something they likely have to do to get a win.
As the saying goes, a great defense stops a great offense. Denver takes care of Atlanta and continues on undefeated in 2016.