Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Atlanta's Offense

Film Room: Atlanta's Offense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

Week 5 looked like the end for the 2018 Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons got blasted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 41-17 loss to fall to a pitiful 1-4 record on the year. The Falcons had played all of their previous losses close, but at the end of the day, a loss is a loss is a loss, and moral victories do not get teams into the playoffs. A dramatic turnaround was necessary if the Falcons wanted to even pretend to be a playoff contender. With many of their starters on defense taken out by injury, a proper comeback from 1-4 did not seem realistic.

If this season has taught us anything, though, it is that a top-tier offense can carry an underperforming defense. The Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) are the shining example of this philosophy, but the New Orleans Saints (7-1), Los Angeles Rams (8-1), and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2-1) all fall somewhere along the spectrum of relying on their offenses to make up for the defense.

The same can be said of the Falcons. A grotesque Week 1 performance out of Matt Ryan and the gang made it easy to forget about the Falcons' offense as the team's record got worse and worse, but the offense has come on strong over the past month or so. Ryan has ascended to MVP-caliber form again and is equipped with an abundance of weapons around him to help ease the burden. Even offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the laughingstock of the NFL for how poorly he replaced Kyle Shanahan in 2017, has come into his own as an NFL playcaller, showing more dedicated ways to get players open and fewer poorly timed gimmicks. They do not look quite like the 2016 Shanahan squad, but this is as close as the Falcons can get without bringing Shanahan back.

This revitalized version of the Falcons offense is doing little more than what should be common sense. Sarkisian is leaning on his star players when he needs to, maximizing pre-snap movement to expose and dictate coverages, and taking advantage of the effectiveness of play-action and RPOs. All teams should be doing this in a way that makes sense for their personnel.

For the Falcons, leaning on their star players most often shows up when they need to dig themselves out of poor field position. The Falcons have the second-worst average starting field position in the league (25.51-yard line), which effectively means they are getting fewer drives that start in a favorable position and more drives that start with them backed up in their end of the field.

Wide receivers Julio Jones and rookie Calvin Ridley are fantastic route-runners who can abuse opposing cornerbacks in one-on-one situations. Sarkisian has embraced their ability to win by themselves on the outside and turned to iso routes to those two to bail the team out from inside their own deep zone. It is a simple approach, but with wide receivers as capable as Jones and Ridley on the outside, there is no reason to ram running backs into crowded boxes or throw quick screens in the hopes to claw the team out of a hole 3 yards at a time. The Falcons can easily pick up a fresh set of downs with one throw to either one of their top wide receivers.

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On this 14-yard gain, Ridley flashes excellent route-running for a rookie. Ridley gets vertical with impressive speed and begins to sell the post route at about the 30-yard line. The sell of the inside break by Ridley forces the cornerback to commit to running down the field with him. Once the cornerback commits and tries to accelerate, Ridley stops in his tracks and turns back around to the sideline. The cornerback does not have a chance to stop himself, redirect, and close in on Ridley in time, giving Ryan a clean throwing window for an easy chain-moving completion.

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Here is Jones winning a one-on-one against cornerback Janoris Jenkins as the Falcons are in a dire situation on their own 1-yard line. Unlike in the Ridley example, Jones does not need much route-running prowess to win this rep, but the threat of Jones getting vertical keeps Jenkins at bay. The moment Jones sees Jenkins step back to open his hips, Jones breaks off the route and books it toward the sideline. Once again, Ryan is presented with a wide open throw as result of nothing more than great iso play from his primary wide receiver.

When playing further down the field, the Falcons often turn to a different, yet equally intuitive way to make life easy for Ryan. Sarkisian has gotten down how to effectively move running backs around the formation. By shifting the running backs to and from wide receiver positions or to the opposite side of Ryan, he has often forced defenses to show their hand. With more information available, a smart passer such as Ryan is able to pick apart defenses with little resistance.

In this pre-snap look, the Bengals' defense is trying to play man coverage on the two Falcons wide receivers split to the left. The cornerback who would normally be on the right side of the defense has followed a wide receiver into the slot, leaving no cornerbacks on the right side of the formation.

However, Ryan motions running back Tevin Coleman out wide to the two-tight end side. The safety to that side of the field widens to match Coleman, leaving a massive opening between the numbers and the hash. That opening is precisely where Ryan wants to put the ball. So long as tight end Logan Paulsen (82), the inside tight end on this look, can get even a half-step on the linebacker covering him, this should be an easy touchdown for the Falcons.

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And it was. To make matters worse for the Bengals, the linebacker trailed off his coverage of Paulsen because he likely assumed he had help over the top when in reality he did not. The window opened even wider for Ryan due to the linebacker's mistake, granting Ryan a "free" touchdown pass.

The Falcons duped the Buccaneers in opposite fashion a few weeks ago. Rather than motioning the running back out wide, the running back started outside and was motioned back to a traditional backfield position. Though not a touchdown, the Falcons did pick up a few cheap yards.

In the first picture, Coleman is split out to the left with Ridley before any pre-snap movement. The Bucs are showing a two-high shell with average cornerback depth -- a fairly conservative look. Upon Coleman shifting to the backfield in the second picture, the Bucs roll into a one-high shell and back off the cornerbacks. The cornerback over Ridley ends up playing 8 yards off the ball, which gives Ridley a boatload of space to work with on the speed out.

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Ridley's speed out is complimented by a packaged hand-off option to Coleman. The play is a pre-snap RPO for Ryan, and he can choose to either hand the ball off or throw depending on the box counter or coverage. Due to the cornerback's deep alignment, Ryan knew Ridley would be open with ease because there was simply too much space between he and the cornerback, let alone Ridley's ability to create more space through explosive route running.

As if Sarkisian's awakening was not impactful enough on its own, Ryan has also been a star in his own right. When Ryan won the MVP in 2016, he played lights-out and was deserving of the award, but Shanahan did a lot to open up the play-action and downfield passing attack in a way that Sarkisian can not match. That is not necessarily a knock on Sarkisian -- matching Shanahan's tactical prowess is a tall order.

In turn, Ryan has been asked to throw into more tight windows over the intermediate portion of the field this season. Taking on more tight-window throws is tough for any quarterback, but Ryan has responded about as well as anyone could hope. According to the NFL's own Next Gen Stats, Ryan's expected completion rate is 65.1 percent, but he currently holds a stellar 70.8 percent completion rate. Ryan's 5.6 percent of completions above expectation ranks third in the league.

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via Gfycat

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These two throws are just a couple of the countless perfect passes Ryan has thrown into tight windows this year. Across the field, down the seam, to the sideline, in between linebackers -- the situation does not matter to Ryan right now, he is throwing with a touch of brilliance. The peak of his skill set is shining through now more than it ever has in his career, which is something to say for someone bordering on a Hall of Fame profile.

Where things become stressful for Atlanta is that Ryan and Sarkisian have no room for error from here on out. Linebacker Deion Jones' return to the defense may boost that side of the ball a bit, but the Falcons' passing offense must continue to run up the score if the team wants any chance at a wild-card spot. A culmination of stellar quarterback play, a plethora of threatening skill players, and a newfound vision from Sarkisian have propelled this Falcons team to heights they could not have imagined at 1-4. They can not stop here.

Thankfully for the Falcons, the rest of their schedule is not a gauntlet of super teams. Per our own projections, the Falcons' remaining schedule ranks 23rd in difficulty, with games against the Browns, Cowboys, and Cardinals still left to play. Granted, the three division games remaining on the schedule, particularly versus the Saints and Panthers, will be slugfests, but Atlanta now has the offensive firepower to match their division opponents. Furthermore, another win over the Panthers would give the Falcons a 2-0 mark in the head-to-head this season, which will prove valuable in the event of a tiebreaker scenario.

Being within striking distance of a wild-card spot is quite the accomplishment given the team's 1-4 start. With a 4-4 record in hand and a fifth win waiting for them in Cleveland this weekend, the Falcons' are in a much better position now than they were three weeks ago. Still, there are eight games left and the Falcons could squander this comeback opportunity just as well as they could capitalize on it. After a Super Bowl meltdown and a lackluster 2017 season to follow it up, this is the Falcons' chance to begin to redeem themselves.


6 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2018, 7:58am

1 Re: Film Room: Atlanta's Offense

Two games I've watched the falcons offense(I missed the season opener), Calvin Ridley is a monster. Pairing him with a player like Julio Jones (who I consider an all time great receiver) is unfair.

That said, dramatically one-sided teams inevitably fall in the playoffs, because it's extremely hard to string together four A graded offensive performances against playoff defenses. It's even harder if your games are likely to be on the road.

As an aside, I thought the Falcons were making a poor choice to draft Calvin Ridley when they already had Julio Jones. And yet, this once again reminds me - forget trying to prioritize sides of the ball and just draft the best talent(position caveats apply, Barkley was still the suboptimal choice)

4 Re: Film Room: Atlanta's Offense

Re: Barkley. I'm a Giants fan. My preferences in the draft were, in order, (1) Baker, (2) What the Colts did-- trade down, take Nelson, and focus on the OL, (3) Rosen, (4) Saquon. So, to that extent, I agree that he was sub-optimal, because he would have been my third choice, given that the Browns took Mayfield. But conventional wisdom was that they'd take Darnold. I wasn't sure he'd pan out. I *still* am not sure he'll pan out. And, God forbid they had Allen as their top rated QB.

So, in many ways, I feel like us Giants fans dodged a bullet. Maybe Darnold pans out and makes this reply look foolish. But his play so far was what his play was at USC: too turnover prone, not accurate enough. Allen is what he is. I liked Rosen, and still do. But there is little to suggest he was next on the Giants' list, and (without saying this fits you) it seems that most of those who criticize the Saquon pick think they should have gone Darnold.

And, even if it wasn't the optimal choice (boy, does Luck look revitalized, and Mack looks just fine), Saquon at least gives us a really fun player to watch.

5 Re: Film Room: Atlanta's Offense

A lot of your comments scream "hindsight". I know technically you predicted Darnold would struggle, but lots and lots of qbs have been predicted to struggle and instead became great.

I remember when people thought Philip Rivers threw too many ints in college and his quirky delivery wouldn't work in the NFL. I heard critics blasting Carson Wentz for his cupcake schedule of opponents and then using him as a defense for Josh Allen.

I still think the colts made a suboptimal choice in Nelson. A guard provides even less on the field value than an Rb and it too was a suboptimal choice. I can't think of a single offense where an all pro guard moves the needle all that much.

6 Re: Film Room: Atlanta's Offense

It's more than technically not hindsight-- it's not hindsight in any fashion.

"And then there is Jackson. Darnold's passing stats *may* be *slightly* better than his, but not by much and the delta can easily be because of surrounding cast. But that's just passing; Jackson has all of the running ability as well.

Darnold should be QB4. Allen QB5 or lower."

As for taking a guard, the Colts OL went from moribund to stout, and now they can put points on the board. They are keeping their franchise quarterback, coming off of a major injury, clean. They can run the ball, despite having one of those fungible running backs. And they got additional draft capital by trading back. So far, it looks like they did second best out of the teams drafting in the top 7 (to the Browns, who found a stud CB and maybe finally their QB answer).

My dream scenario would have been getting Nelson, and trading back into the late 1st round to get Jackson. The only part of that which is hindsight is knowing that they'd have had to trade back into the 1st rather than him sliding to them in the 2nd.