Is the Atlanta Falcons Offense Better Without Devonta Freeman?

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Devonta Freeman
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 06: Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) during an NFL regular season football game against the Philadelphia Eagles on September 6, 2018, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Atlanta Falcons without Devonta Freeman put up 34 points in Week Six against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Voices are getting louder asking why the Falcons offense produces more points when Freeman is not in the lineup. Is the Falcons offense really better without him?

The Atlanta Falcons Offense May Be Better Without Devonta Freeman

The Points Scored Discrepancy

Over the 24-game Steve Sarkisian era, the Falcons average 19 points per game in the games with Freeman. They average 33 points in the seven games without him. For this exercise, we will count the Dallas Cowboys game in 2017 as a game without Freeman since he left after two carries.

How do we explain that huge gap? There are theories going around in bunches. One is that Freeman simply is not a good back. Another thinks that Sark is simply too reliant on him when he is there. Hence, his gameplans become more conservative with Freeman in the lineup.

I decided to take a look at the numbers, to see if any of this holds up under close scrutiny.

The Run Game

We can measure rushing efficiency in various ways, but for this exercise, I will look at four metrics. Success rate, first down rate, touchdown rate, and yards per carry. Here is the breakdown of the Falcons running back runs 2017-2018 in games with and without Freeman:

2017-2018 Falcons rushing efficiency on running back runs

Success Rate First Down % TD% Y/A
17 games w/ Devonta Freeman 46.1% 22.3% 3.1% 4.2
7 games w/o Devonta Freeman 40.8% 14.9% 3.6% 2.9

 

Clearly, there is nothing about Freeman that drags the Falcons run game down. In fact, he actually elevates it to decent levels in the lineup. Touchdown rate is the only metric where the Falcons have a better rushing output. But the sample size is really small here. We are talking about six touchdowns between Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith over seven games. If Sark changed one play call in those games at the goal line, even that distinction disappears.

So if it isn’t the run game that suffers with Freeman, maybe it is the play calling?

The Play Calling

Let’s look at the playcalling to see if Freeman’s presence makes Sark a more conservative play caller.

2017-2018 Falcons play calling

Run % Pass %
17 games w/ Devonta Freeman 41% 59%
7 games w/o Devonta Freeman 44% 56%


Again we see the opposite of what the fan theory posits. With Freeman in the lineup, Sark is actually more likely to pass the ball. It is when Freeman is not in the lineup that he tends to call a more run-heavy game.

The Passing Game

There is one final observation, which seems to drive the narrative around the point discrepancy. In games without Freeman, it is the passing game that actually looks dominant. We have seen this correlation happen in 2018 multiple times, so I checked those numbers as well.

2017-2018 Falcons passing efficiency

Success rate Passer rating Y/A TD% INT% Sack%
17 games w/ Devonta Freeman 46% 86.8 7.4 3.1% 2.1% 6.5%
7 games w/o Devonta Freeman 60% 125.1 9.2 7.7% 0.9% 3.8%

 

So here we see the drving force of the points explosion without Freeman. Matt Ryan has been playing lights out in those seven games when he missed Freeman.

The Opponents

But before we draw a clear line, let’s remember that correlation isn’t causation. When we take a look at the strength of opposing defenses the Falcons faced in those two samples, we see some interesting results.

2017-2018 Falcons opponents

Average Pass Defense DVOA Average Run Defense DVOA
17 games w/ Devonta Freeman 15th 16th
7 games w/o Devonta Freeman 25th 16th

 

This seems to be the main underlying reason for the weird split we observed. The Falcons run game basically faced an equally average set of opponents, whether with Freeman or without him. That lends credence to the notion that the improved run game we discussed in the earlier section is actually a product of his presence. He is the only variable that differs between the two sample sets.

But the pass game did not face two equally average sets of opponents. The seven games Freeman missed simply happened to be against a set of terrible pass defenses where a great quarterback like Ryan will have a field day any time, regardless of his backfield.

Now, the 2018 numbers are not finalized of course. Some of those defenses might turn out to be quite different from how they look now.

But as it stands after Week 6 of 2018, the Falcons certainly don’t produce points because Devonta Freeman misses a game.

They happen to face easy pass defenses when Freeman happens to miss a game.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Good job of bringing different metrics into the mix. It shows that you speak without bias, and that I respect.

    This whole “the Falcons offense is better without Freeman” theory is simple, really …

    The data that you proves the Falcons run game is better w/Freeman only points out the obvious to the naked eye. Anyone who watches football knows this to be undeniably true.

    Why, then, has the Falcons offense been more productive through the air this year compared to last? Calvin Ridley, that’s why. It really is that simple.

    The Falcons offense, as a whole, had ZERO problems scoring just two years ago, hence the Super Bowl appearance and an MVP season from Ryan. Then Shannahan left, and Sark was finding his way a year later as his replacement. They kept the same offense, and it looked ugly last year. They also lost a speed element, who really opened things up for them in 2016, in Taylor Gabriel.

    So, an entire offseason for Ryan and his OC to grow together, along with the addition of the very talented Calvin Ridley, is the reason why the Falcons passing offense has flourished this year. Doesn’t have anything to do with Freeman being there or not being there.

    We can’t measure passing stats from ’17 against passing stats from this year — we simply can’t do it. By the very nature of a comparison, it isn’t a fair comparison at all to make, as Ridley wasn’t on the roster, and either was Gabriel.

    Anyway, that’s my two sense on the matter.

    Keep up the good work, man. I checked out your site and I like it. Check me out on footballabstracts.com if you wish to see my work. Take care.

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