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True Turnover table, Week 9: Atlanta Falcons stay in race by taking care of ball

November 9, 2018

The Atlanta Falcons are, by most accounts, having a disappointing season overall. They’re 4-4 at the midpoint of the season and in third place in the competitive NFC South with a lot of work to do to vault back in the playoff race. Right now, they’re on the outside looking in if the postseason were to begin today.

But not too far out. They’re currently the NFC’s No. 7 playoff seed, tied with the same record as the Eagles and Seahawks, who come in at Nos. 8 and 9, despite the Eagles beating the Falcons in the first game of the 2018 season.

One reason why the Falcons have jumped back into the thick of things after a 1-4 start following a wave of injuries is because they’re taking care of the football better than any NFL team so far. Atlanta has committed an NFL-best nine True Turnovers (INTs, fumbles, missed FG tries and fourth-down failures).

That means they’re on pace to commit a mere 18 True Turnovers all season. The 2017 leaders, the New England Patriots, committed a league-best 20 last season, so that should give you an idea how adept the Falcons have been with maximizing their possessions this season.

Three teams are tied for second this season with 10 True Turnovers: the Saints, Panthers and Chiefs, who have a combined record of 21-4 this season. In an oddity, the NFC South’s three other teams — Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina — have committed only five more True Turnovers (29 combined) than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have (24) by themselves.

QB Matt Ryan is having a fabulous season, throwing a mere three interceptions. The Falcons as a team have lost only two fumbles, one each against the Steelers and Giants, and neither of which really hurt them in the outcomes of those games. Kickers Matt Bryant and Georgio Tavecchio are a perfect 13-for-13 on field-goal tries, including 5-of-5 combined on attempts 50 yards and longer.

The one real negative on the Falcons’ ledger is that they have gone for it five times on fourth downs, only succeeding once. That one conversion actually came after Ryan’s lost fumble at the end of a blowout loss to the Steelers, and it was with Matt Schaub at QB. The Falcons went for it on fourth three times one month ago against the Steelers, and they interestingly haven’t gone for one since then.

But with the offense humming they haven’t really had to. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has been in a groove of late, putting on a real show last week in a 38-14 beat down at Washington. Four different Falcons scored touchdowns, including Julio Jones’ first of the season, and they racked up 491 yards. Most importantly, they were True Turnover-free in the game.

The one thing mitigating this stat for Atlanta is the fact that its battered defense only has forced nine True Turnovers on the season as well, putting them at a net zero differential for 2018. The Falcons’ nine True Turnovers are tied for the second-fewest in the league with the Giants, ahead of only Oakland with eight.

The Falcons did add pass rusher Bruce Irvin to the mix, a sign that the Falcons still believe they can compete. Perhaps that addition helps, and LB Deion Jones (who was placed on injured reserve after getting hurt Week 1) might be able to return for the home stretch.

If the Falcons keep taking care of the football the way they have — and perhaps can create a few extra True Turnovers on defense — down the stretch, perhaps they can turn a 1-4 start into an impressive playoff appearance. Of the 136 teams that opened a season since 1990 with a record of 1-4, only nine went on to make the playoffs. Three times in that stretch, Atlanta has opened a season with that record and has never finished above 5-11 in those seasons.

Here are the full True Turnover numbers through Week 9:

Some other True Turnover observations:

• It’s perhaps not shocking that the four teams that have started rookie quarterbacks for multiple games are struggling with giving the ball away. The New York Jets have started Sam Darnold for nine games and have the NFL’s second-most True Turnovers with 27. The only team ahead of them? The Buffalo Bills, with 30. The Bills have started Josh Allen in five of their nine games thus far, as he is coming back from injury. The Cleveland Browns are right behind the Bills and Jets with 25 True Turnovers, followed by three teams — including the Arizona Cardinals — with 24. Baker Mayfield has started six of the Browns’ nine games, also playing a little more than a half a game in his NFL debut in relief of Tyrod Taylor. Josh Rosen has started five of Arizona’s eight games and relieved the now-released Sam Darnold late in a Week 3 loss to the Bears.

• We’re not solely blaming the rookie quarterbacks here, as there clearly are examples where others have let the teams down. Of the Bills’ 16 INTs, only five belong to Allen (thanks, Nathan Peterman!). Mayfield has thrown seven picks and lost two fumbles, and only six of the Browns’ eight fourth-down failures have come on plays on which he was at QB. Darnold clearly has had a hand in the Jets’ high True Turnover number, with a league-high 14 INTs, one lost fumble and the team’s five fourth-down failures (all of which were him throwing or running the ball). Rosen’s six picks, two lost fumbles and four fourth-down failures are a tad high by league-wide standards by game.

• Teams clearly know that turning the ball over to a rookie QB is going to lead to a higher frequency of these types of plays. The Browns have missed out on some glorious opportunities, with their defense forcing an NFL-best 30 True Turnovers — more than Cleveland forced all of last season and three more than the next-best NFL team this season. But it’s the collateral damage, one would assume, for giving Mayfield his opportunity to grow amid the adversity in Cleveland that already has resulted in two coaches being fired there.

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