The Atlanta Falcons are starting to look like a threat on offense. Has Kyle Shanahan finally got the Falcons clicking?
Watching the game against the Oakland Raiders, there was just a different feeling to the Atlanta Falcon offense – the feeling that they would score every single time they had possession of the ball. It’s a feeling that hasn’t been apparent with this offense since week 4 of last season.
And it was in those moments of dominance against the Raiders when that exciting thought popped into my head – the thought that this offense might have finally clicked under Kyle Shanahan.
Despite contrary belief, Kyle Shanahan is actually a good offensive coordinator as far as X’s and O’s are concerned. He spent the majority of his life around the game of football, being Mike Shanahan’s son and all, and didn’t become the youngest coordinator of all time (aged 28) for no reason.
Atlanta’s switch to the zone blocking scheme under Shanahan was an absolute godsend for a team that had struggled to run the ball for years. Within this scheme, RB Devonta Freeman was seventh in the NFL in rushing yards, and tied for first in rushing touchdowns last season, earning himself a trip to the pro bowl. Freeman represented Atlanta’s first 1000 yard rusher since Michael Turner did it in 2011.
The offense in the first four weeks of the season last year was humming: Shanahan was calling seemingly all the right plays, Julio Jones was an early MVP candidate, and Devonta Freeman was single handedly winning fantasy games.
At one point there was even some fear that Kyle Shanahan was going to leave and take a head coaching job at year’s end because of all the success, and that the Falcons were going to lose a bright young offensive mind.
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Then the offense hit a wall. Week 5 against the Redskins was a poor offensive day, the loss in week 6 to New Orleans started the collapse, and even a week 7 win against an ailing Titans team only featured 10 points scored.
Naturally, the fingers were pointed at the starting quarterback and the offensive coordinator. Matt Ryan was turning the ball over in the redzone, and Kyle Shanahan failed to steer a sinking offensive ship away from the iceberg. By the end of the season, most of the fan-base wanted to run the 36-year-old coordinator out of town.
Head Coach Dan Quinn has stayed true to his offensive coordinator, however, and that might now pay off in a big way.
Shanahan’s offensive philosophy makes a lot of sense when you really take a look at it. The zone blocking scheme paves the way for a strong run game by a running back who has vision (many of the runs are to the outside or stretch plays to really take advantage of the zone blocking); the run game sets up play action and keeps the defense off guard. This scheme also requires some mobility from the quarterback in an attempt to further keep the defensive players on their toes.
This is exactly what was happening in that first month of the season last year, and the result was a winning streak. Running the ball effectively and consistently is what makes up the foundation of Shanahan’s offensive scheme.
Before the start of this season, I wrote an article detailing why the Falcons must become a run first football team. The truth is that the birds did not run the ball nearly enough times to succeed in this system – the Atlanta Falcons ran the ball 420 times against 1041 total offensive plays. That’s a rushing percentage of 40.35%, good for just 19th in the league.
However, let me detail the run/pass split in the first five weeks of last season (all wins), and show why the birds had so much success out of the gate.
Overall first 5 weeks: 156 run/185 pass = 45.7% run.
Over the course of a season, that percentage would have been good for 10th in the league (in that aforementioned article talking about the need to run the ball, I detail the success of teams who were top 10 in the NFL in rushing percentage).
As you may have noticed, that list of games includes an outlier match against the Giants (week 2) where starting RB Tevin Coleman got injured, and the Falcons pretty much abandoned the run. Atlanta would have lost that game if not for a big defensive play, in the form of a Kroy Bierman strip sack on QB Eli Manning, in the 4th quarter.
The run percentage stats, if you take out the outlier Giants game: 134 run/139 pass = 49.08% run.
Over the course of a season, that percentage would have been good for 5th in the league (the Buffalo Bills were the only team to finish top 5 in rushing percentage last year and not make the playoffs – they had an 8-8 record but were ravaged by injuries to their backfield).
So what do these running percentages have to do with the offense clicking under Shanahan? The reason they’re so relevant is because they represent the key to really unlocking the full potential of this offense. There is some proven success with Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta (those first five weeks last year), and it all stems from running the ball.
Atlanta went away from the run following the week 6 loss to New Orleans, and it was in large part due to the fact that Devonta Freeman just hit a wall, and was not the same player he was over the course of the first two months of the season. Tevin Coleman’s serial fumbling eliminated him from the backfield equation.
Freeman’s fall wasn’t the only reason for an abandonment of the run game: it also seemed like the offensive coordinator fell more in love with the pass as the struggles piled up, and the need to get a lot of yardage in a short amount of time became more prevalent. The thought of getting larger chunks of yardage at once is a risky temptation if it means sacrificing the run game.
This year, Shanahan has put an emphasis on running the ball, and has brought about a two headed running back combination in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to ensure that the team doesn’t collapse if one of them hits that dreaded wall.
Against the Oakland Raiders, Shanahan dialed up the run 46.03% of the time: 29 rushes against 34 passes. According to teamrankings.com, that percentage is good for 10th in the NFL in week 2. Here’s a crazy stat from week 2 in the national football league – the 14 teams who led the league in rushing percentage (Chargers, Jets, Patriots, Texans, Steelers, Broncos, Panthers, Eagles, Cowboys, Falcons, Cardinals, Rams, Giants) all won their game.
It’s not rocket science that running the ball will lead to success, and the fact that Kyle Shanahan has emphasized that with the Falcons is a sign of good things to come.
Now, the Falcons didn’t run the ball at a high percentage week 1 against Tampa Bay, but that’s because the offensive line was getting bullied (they need to do their part, as this offense starts with them); and because Atlanta was playing from behind most of the second half. That won’t be the norm moving forward.
As for quarterback Matt Ryan: many believe that the 3-time pro bowler isn’t comfortable in, or doesn’t know how to run, Shanahan’s offensive scheme. This is false, as Ryan did run a similar offensive scheme (predicated on stretch run plays and the zone blocking scheme) at Boston College under head coach Jeff Jagodzinski.
Ryan may have been uncomfortable last season, but that was more likely due to the fact that he was in his first year under a new offensive coordinator.
However, even with the run game in order and Matt Ryan comfortable in the scheme (now in his second year of it), there was still that one final piece of the offensive puzzle left to figure out, which would result in that proverbial “click”. Against the Raiders, the Falcons figured out what that missing piece was – the up tempo offense.
Matt Ryan has historically thrived in the no huddle up tempo offense. He’s 13th all time in game winning drives (all of the QBs ahead of him on the list have been in the league for at least four more seasons), and has always had a history of moving the ball effectively in pressure packed no huddle situations.
Against the Buccaneers in week 1, Atlanta’s first real no huddle drive of the game resulted in a seemingly effortless touchdown in the third quarter.
As a result, the fan-base began clamoring for more up tempo, and Kyle Shanhan obliged in week 2. The result was an offensive explosion, and Matt Ryan’s best game since week 1 against the New Orleans Saints in 2014.
Throughout the afternoon, Atlanta ran offensive plays out of the no huddle 41% of the time (according to 92.9 The Game’s Mike Conti), and the result for Matt Ryan was perfection.
Those are video game numbers; and the 158.3 passer rating signifies perfection, as far as that stat is concerned.
Following this success against the Raiders, we should continue to see a high dose of tempo in this offense. Combining the no huddle with a very balanced mixture of play calls – between the run, pass, and set up play action – is what might just end up helping this offense reach its ceiling.