The Falcons offense has been very effective this season, but significantly more effective in the first three weeks of the season than the last three weeks of the season. The reason for their success has been precision timing in the passing game as well as the ability to pose some sort of threat running the ball. It goes without saying that through the first three games the Falcons played, they ran the ball more effectively. And on top of that, the Falcons took fewer 7-step drops when passing. At least far fewer bad things happened when they took those long drops in the passing game.
Look at the games against the Chiefs, Broncos, and Chargers. I looked at the situations where Matt Ryan was sacked, and the sacks were few and far between. He was only hit a couple times more, and none of these were terrible. As a matter of fact, the sack against the Broncos was simply a garbage-time sack, against the Chiefs a short drop where his receivers were covered, and the sack against San Diego was a short drop.
But over the Falcons most recent three games, the Falcons have taken more chances with 7-step drops, and the results haven’t been great. It isn’t so much that there has been a lack of productivity on such plays, or that every 7-step drop has been a disaster. It’s just that nearly all of the negative plays that have happened in the past couple weeks has been on those obvious passing situations.
Against Carolina, the Falcons gave up 7 sacks. Two of them were on 3rd down situations out of the shotgun, and two more came off play-action, where the depth of the drop ended up being equivalent to a 7-step from under center.
Against Washington, the Falcons gave up only 1 sack, and had decent protection, but the sack came when the running game wasn’t working well, and was really a botched play-action play.
The worst came against Oakland. Two of Matt Ryan’s interceptions and his one sack came on 7-step drops. That means no play-action, just a drop back pass where the pass rush affected him to the point that it forced him into two of his three turnovers on the day.
What can be determined? The Falcons line, when combined with the outstanding timing of the quarterback-receiving combo allows really good things to happen in the short and intermediate passing game. Atlanta doesn’t really need to do many things to make passing happen in those two levels of the passing game.
What they haven’t been good at is 7-step drops. Generally you take a drop that deep to connect on deep passes, make double moves possible, and give your line more time to operate. The Falcons haven’t been making things happen when they take those deep drops simply because the offensive line isn’t blocking. The Falcons have all the receiving talent in the world, and Matt Ryan can make every NFL throw, but you can’t do much when the defense is smacking you around.
The other thing that helps a passing game, is running the ball, and running it effectively. By running it well and making the defense respect your ability to run, defenses will cheat up, or pause for a moment, especially when using the play-action game. When you use a play-action pass and aren’t running the ball effectively, it decreases your time to throw the ball, and generally increases your propensity to be sacked. If you aren’t able to get the pass off when using play-action, it means you certainly aren’t running the ball well.
So here is my three-fold plan to increasing the Falcons success throwing the ball:
- If you’re going to not use play-action and simply drop back to pass, make sure that you use a lot of 3 and 5-step drops. Don’t allow Philadelphia’s defensive line to carve you up; keep the protections simple, don’t give them time to hit Matt Ryan really hard, and get the ball out quick into your playmakers hands.
- Don’t be afraid to run the ball more. Yeah, Michael Turner hasn’t bee fantastic so far, but through the first six games of the season, he has averaged 4.3 yards per carry. More liberal use of Turner to pound the rock will certainly open up the passing game, allow big gains deep down the field, and certainly help the play-action game. Because the truth is that there is no excuse for giving up sacks on play-action passes.
- Hit teams more often with a draw play. Whether it be out of the shotgun, or with Ryan lining up under center, draw plays keep the defense honest, help keep the pass rush off of Matt Ryan, and will yield dividends on the ground. It’s a simple way of helping your offense be more effective.