At first glance, this seems like a real uphill battle for the Browns. Atlanta comes in 3-1 with a big win AT New Orleans and a close loss to the Steelers. Further, they are coming off a 9-7 season and they have found a franchise QB. The Browns are coming off their first win in four tries and a 5-11 campaign.
Considering all that, I'm surprised the Browns are only 3 point underdawgs at home. Let's see what the numbers say about this cross-conference game. As always, the numbers are courtesy of Football Outsiders.
When the Falcons have the ball
Overall the Falcons offense has underperformed. The Steelers and 49ers almost completely shut them down. And while DAVE (60% DVOA, 40% Football Outsiders pre-season projections for week 5) ranks them at 9th in the league, their DVOA is a few spots lower at 12, 7.6%. On DVOA, they rank 11th in passing (22.6%), but are actually below average in running the ball (-4.4%, 21st). Overall the Browns don't match up well on this side of the ball. We rank 27th defending the pass (27.6%), and our strength is stopping the run (12th, -15% DVOA, 0 rushing TDs).
Matt Ryan is everything you want to see in a QB. Usually accurate, confident, a leader, big, strong. He is something short of elite, but at 10th in DYAR and 12th in DVOA, at just 25 years old in his 3rd season... well, its enough to make us Browns fans drool. Roddy White is Ryan's clear #1 WR. But he has actually been a little disappointing. After a 22% DVOA in 2008, he put up a -1% last year and is again hovering around average (5.6%) this year. I think part of the problem is that he is targeted way too much. His 50 targets lead the league this year, by far. And its because there is no clear #2 WR, as injuries have slowed Michael Jenkins. Tony Gonzalez, the second greatest TE in NFL history, is the obvious #2 target for Ryan. Gonzalez is currently 7th in DYAR and 15th in DVOA at 19% above average among TEs.
I'm not sure if Owens is counted as the Bengals #1 WR or not, but regardless, the Browns rank dead last in defending passes to #1s. 48% worse than average. We are also particularly bad at covering RBs out of the backfield on a per play basis, but teams haven't utilized that very often and it is certainly not the Falcons, or Michael Turner's strength. Unlike the last few years, we are actually decent at defending passes to the TE (6% DVOA). And we are particularly good at defending "other WRs", i.e. #3, #4, #5... just ask Mr. Jordan Shipley.
Michael Turner is the latest example of the short shelf life of even dominant RBs. He went from one of the best in the league, to splitting carries with former 7th round pick Jason Snelling. And guess who is more effective? Turner ranks 29th in both DYAR and DVOA, right around league average. Snelling has been outstanding in a part time role, 6th in DYAR, 4th in DVOA. One caveat- Snelling's had his most carries against Arizona in a blowout. Turner had his highest usage against the Saints in a close game. Still, I'll be happy if the Falcons want to run the ball a lot.
When the Browns have the ball
Quick- name two players on Atlanta's defense.... who'd you come up with? Anyone?
I was stuck after John Abraham, honestly. Maybe I should have come up with Curtis Lofton or Erik Coleman. But those are far from household names. And yet, this unit ranks 9th in DVOA, a respectable 11th against the run and 11th against the pass.
The Browns continue to shed the awful projections of the preseason, informed only by the atrocities of the 2009 offensive effort. While DAVE isn't totally convinced that this is a good unit (23rd in the league), the results are starting to speak for themselves. The Browns are above average on offense so far, ranked 15th at 2.9% DVOA. This is because we are running the ball better, right? Not necessarily. The Browns still rank way better passing (16th, 17% better than average) than running (18th, 2% worse than average).
But taking a look individually, the strength of the offense becomes clear. Peyton Hillis has a success rate of 61%, that's good for 4th in the league. And overall the 7th most valuable back in the league. We need to send Josh McDaniels a Christmas card this year... seriously. Jerome Harrison has been awful, and that's all I'll say about that. If Hillis can take the toll, he should be in the game damn near every play. If he needs a spell, I'd probably prefer James Davis be active, but that's just me.
The passing game is still near impossible to break down with these numbers. Seneca Wallace likely returns to the bench. And whatever you think of him or Jake Delhomme, it should be clear that they are very different QBs. Wallace likes the deep crossing routes and the middle of the field. But is awful in throwing go routes down the sideline and is pretty average, accuracy-wise. He is mobile, shifty, fast, but he focuses on one WR too much. Delhomme will spread the ball around, get the ball out quick, but is slow and old. He probably has a weaker arm, but better with the deep ball and still has a gunslinger mentality.On a per play basis, Wallace ranked 14th in the league, while Delhomme ranked 22nd. That is a little unfair to Jake, given the sample size and the fact that 1/2 his playing time was with a serious injury.
Perhaps the person happiest with Delhomme's return will be Mohammad Massaquoi. Massaquoi has been a forgotten man the last 3 games, hopefully Delhomme can find him and its not just because Massaquoi stinks. Oh, and Josh Cribbs is the best WR on this team. I'm just sayin, I'm not surprised.
Atlanta is bad against #1 WRs. But dominant against #2's, 95% better than average!
As the return unit continues to search for their breakout game, the kick coverage unit continues to lead the now exactly average special teams of the Cleveland Browns (0.0% DVOA). Atlanta has been particularly good with their kick coverage, but particularly bad in punt coverage. So maybe we can get some return advantage there.
I did just realize Football Outsiders doesn't seem to include FG defense. Sure, the other team missing a field goal is usually out of your control, but with Shawn Rogers and the big blocked FG last week by Scott Fujita, I'd like to think we have some higher than normal chance at forcing missed kicks.
Thoughts and Conclusions
I don't like the matchup on defense. The Falcons are going to throw to Roddy White a lot. The Browns need to roll a safety to his side on every play. Hopefully that doesn't take away Boss Ward and the rest of the defense from doing what they do well: cover the TE, stop the run. The 49ers and Steelers have shown that this offense can be stopped, I just hope the Browns have the ability to do it.
The Falcons underrated defense will have their hands full IF Hillis is healthy enough to carry the ball 25 times AND Delhomme can pick up where he left off in the preseason/first half of the first game. If not, the Browns will struggle to score with the Falcons.
All that said, this game is at home. The Falcons really aren't great, and the Browns really aren't bad. An upset wouldn't shock me at all, as this is the NFL and there just isn't that much separation with the teams in the middle 80% of the league- and that is where both these teams find themselves. My heart says Browns win. But that's what my heart always says.
My head says: Falcons- 24 Browns- 23
You know what? After further thought, I'm changing my prediction. Mangini is going to take away White and the Falcons won't be able to put up that many points against an inspired Browns Defense:
Here we go Brownies! Here we go...