Cover 9@9: Here’s the Falcons’ midterm report card

1. The no-spin zone: Technically, the halfway point of the season for the Falcons will come at halftime of Sunday’s game because the NFL expanded the regular season to 17 games last year.

But out of habit, after eight games we figured that it’s time for the midterm grades for the Falcons, who are in first place in the NFC South.

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Here are the grades:

Run offense: The Falcons are pounding out 158.1 yards per game, which ranks fifth in the NFL. What’s been most impressive is that they’ve continued to grind out the yards without the top two backs on the roster for most of the season. Damien Williams was hurt in the season-opening loss to the Saints, and Cordarrelle Patterson has missed the past four games after left knee surgery. The Falcons’ ground attack is led by Patterson, who has rushed 58 times for 340 yards (5.9 per carry) and three touchdowns in four games. Rookie Tyler Allgeier has 84 carries for 325 yards (3.9) and a touchdown. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has rushed 55 times for 280 yards (5.1) and three touchdowns. Caleb Huntley has rushed 57 times for 265 yards (4.6) and a touchdown. Avery Williams has 10 carries for 58 yards (5.8) and a touchdown. The nine rushing touchdowns rank tied for sixth in the league with six other teams. Grade: A

Pass offense: Mariota has completed 112 of 178 passes for 1,432 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has a passer rating of 92.7. The Falcons are averaging 162.6 yards passing per game, which is 29th in the league. Tight end Kyle Pitts has caught 21 of 39 targets for a 53.8 catch percentage, which is down from his 61.6 catch percentage last season. Rookie Drake London has 49 targets and 30 catches (61.2%) for 346 yards. Pitts, London, Olamide Zaccheaus and Damiere Byrd each have two touchdowns. This is the area in which the Falcons must improve over the second half of the season in order to make a playoff bid. Rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder has not played a down. Grade: F

Pass defense: The Falcons’ secondary has been hit hard by injuries, and the team is giving up 306.9 yards per game passing, which ranks last in the league. The Falcons have seven players with interceptions. The Falcons have 19 sacks this season, which is tied for 13th in the league with four other teams. Dallas, which is coordinated by former Falcons coach Dan Quinn, leads the league with 33 sacks. The Falcons must cut down the yards after the catch. In the Bengals game, four players had more than 25 yards after the catch. Against the Panthers, four players had more than 20 yards after the catch. Grade: F

Run defense: The run defense was in the top 10 until Carolina rushed 36 times for 169 yards and three touchdowns. The Falcons are now giving up 108.9 yards per game, which ranks 11th in the league. Carolina’s D’Onta Foreman rushed 26 times for 118 yards and three touchdowns. Cleveland’s Nick Chubb also ran for 118 yards against the Falcons. Four teams have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Falcons. They held the Rams (65), Bucs (69), 49ers (50) and the Bengals (78) under 100 yards rushing. Linebackers Rashaan Evans (73 tackles) and Mykal Walker (59 tackles) are the leading tacklers. Also, rookie Troy Andersen looks like a keeper. Grade: B

Special teams: Returner Avery Williams has been dazzling. He averages 20.5 yards per punt return and 21.4 on kickoff returns. Kicker Younghoe Koo has made 12 of 14 field goals, including a 41-yard game-winner against the Panthers. Punter Bradley Pinion is averaging 41.6 net yards on 30 punts. He has placed 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. Rookie long snapper Liam McCullough has been a good replacement for former Pro Bowl player Josh Harris. Grade: A

Coaching: Coach Arthur Smith and his veteran coaching staff have come up with a formula that has them in first place in the NFC South. The plan is to run the ball and selectively pass. On defense, while the coverage and tackling must improve, they played well enough to be in six one-score games and pulled out three of them. Running backs coach Michael Pitre and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford must be commended for the production in the run game. Defensively, inside linebackers coach Frank Bush and outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino must be commended for getting rookies Andersen, Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone ready to play. Grade: A

2. The Justin Herbert challenge: The Chargers (4-3) have used a potent passing attack to get a strong start to the season and are set to face the Falcons (4-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Chargers are led by third-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who was selected to the Pro Bowl last season.

“I don’t know if there’s a better quarterback – you talk about critical-down situations – he’s a guy that can extend plays, live arm,” Smith said. “He’s going to be a challenge.”

Herbert has completed 203 of 308 passes (65.9%) for 2,009 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has a passer rating of 91.8.

The Chargers pass for 279.4 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the league.

The Falcons’ pass defense, which gives up 306.9 yards per game and ranks last (32nd) in the league, will be challenged.

Running back Austin Ekeler is the top rusher and receiver for the Chargers. He has rushed 84 times for 380 yards and five touchdowns. He has caught 53 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns.

Wide receiver Mike Williams, a former Clemson standout, has 37 catches for 495 yards and three touchdowns.

Keenan Allen, a five-time Pro Bowl player, missed five games with a hamstring injury. He returned to the lineup against the Seahawks on Oct. 23. He caught two passes for 11 yards in the 37-23 loss.

“We have to come up with a good plan, and we have to play well in all three phases,” Smith said.

3. Bulldogs watch: Rookie Jamaree Salyer, who played at Georgia, is starting at left tackle for the Chargers. Rashawn Slater, who started at left tackle as a rookie last season, is on injured reserve.

Tight end Tre’ McKitty, who played the 2020 season at Georgia as a grad transfer from Florida State, has started three games for the Chargers this season.

Former Georgia standout Sony Michel is Ekeler’s backup.

4. Khalil Mack still a game-wrecker: The Chargers’ defense is led by linebacker Khalil Mack and safety Derwin James.

Mack, a six-time Pro Bowl player and three-time All-Pro, still can wreck games. He has six sacks, seven tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits and 25 tackles.

“We know the issue with Mack,” Smith said. “If you get into too many obvious passing situations, he can be a nightmare.”

James, a two-time Pro Bowl player and one-time All-Pro, has two sacks, three quarterback hits, three pass breakups and 63 tackles.

The Chargers opened the Seattle game playing a 4-2-5 nickel defense.

“It’s a good scheme,” Smith said. “They’re coming off a bye. Glad we’re at home. Looking forward to it, but it will be a (heck) of a challenge.”

5. Resiliency watch: The Falcons will try to get over the .500 mark for the first time since the end of the 2017 season. After their 37-34 overtime win over the Panthers, the Falcons are 3-3 in one-score games this season.

“The resiliency,” said Smith of what’s impressed him most about the team. “It’s been far from perfect, it’s usually not perfect in the NFL, but just the guys, the belief, some of the obstacles that we’ve been able to overcome so far.”

6. Series record: This will be the 12th meeting between the Falcons and the Chargers. The Falcons lead the series 8-3.

The Chargers won the last meeting 20-17 on Dec. 13, 2020, at SoFi Stadium.

7. Calvin Ridley gets moved at trading deadline: Embattled and suspended Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars for NFL draft compensation, just hours before the league’s 4 p.m. trading deadline Tuesday, the team announced.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request to interview general manager Terry Fontenot about the trade deadline previously was declined by the team.

“As our team continues its growth, we continue our daily focus on improving our roster and believe this move is the best decision to make at this time,” Fontenot said in a statement released by the team. “We appreciate Calvin’s contributions to the organization and wish him well on his next steps.”

NFL Media was first to report the trade. The Falcons are set to receive a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick. The latter could turn into a second- or third-round pick under certain conditions, including Ridley signing long term with the Jaguars.

The Falcons also traded safety Dean Marlowe to the Bills and acquired cornerback Rashad Fenton from the Chiefs.

8. Tale of the tape: Here’s how the Falcons and Chargers match up statistically:

2022 season rankings

Falcons / Chargers

25 (6) points per game 23.4 (12)

320.8 (25) Total offense 368.3 (8)

158.1 (5) Net Rush yards/Game 88.9 (27)

162.6 (29) Net Pass yards/Game 279.4 (4)

29:55 (19) Possession Avg. 30:04 (18)

25.6 (29) Opp points/Game 27.0 (31)

415.8 (31) Opp Total offense 357.6 (20)

108.9 (11) Opp Rush Yards/Game 137.6 (27)

306.9 (32) Opp Pass Yards/Game 220.0 (18)

1 (13t) Turnover Differential +2 (8t)

9. Depth chart: Here’s a look at the Falcons’ depth chart:

OFFENSE

QB – Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder

RB – Tyler Allgeier, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams

FB – Keith Smith

WR – Drake London, Bryan Edwards, Jared Bernhardt

TE – Kyle Pitts, Parker Hesse, Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, Feleipe Franks

LT – Jake Matthews, Chuma Edoga

LG – Elijah Wilkinson, Colby Gossett

C – Drew Dalman, Matt Hennessy

RG – Chris Lindstrom, Colby Gossett

RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi

WR – Olamide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge, Damiere Byrd

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone

DE – Grady Jarrett, Timothy Horne

NT – Abdullah Anderson, Timothy Horne

DE – Ta’Quon Graham, Matt Dickerson

OLB – Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie, Quinton Bell

ILB – Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski

ILB – Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen, Nathan Landman

CB – A.J. Terrell, Cornell Armstrong, Isaiah Oliver, Rashad Fenton

FS – Jaylinn Hawkins

SS – Richie Grant, Erik Harris

CB – Darren Hall, Dee Alford, Mike Ford

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough

KR – Avery Williams