Could a lack of change in identity be at the root of the Falcon’s red zone woes?

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 31: Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian converses with Matt Simms
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 31: Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian converses with Matt Simms /

The Falcons offense has looked bad this season, we attempt to break down the Falcons red zone woes.

Football is a game of physicality and strategy similar to chess in an attempt to score touchdowns. No part of the field is more challenging than inside of the red zone which is the area between the goal line and the opponents 20-yard line.

The reason why it is so difficult is due to the limitations in space which allows defenders to play closer together, making it a challenge for the offense. Using as a reference, I have broken down the red zone numbers.

The 2017 Falcon’s offense struggled in the red zone, well by their standards. Part of the issue was a natural regression. In 2016 the Falcon’s offense scored 33.8 points per game which was 7th all time, that number regressed to a solid 22.1 points per game. Part of the issue stemmed from a lack of production which in and of itself came from a lack of an identity inside of the red zone.

A lack of an identity? Absolutely!

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When teams get inside of the red zone, each team has a preferred method of getting the ball to break the plain. Teams who have dominate offensive lines tend to run the ball straight up the middle of the defense, while teams with a light offensive line tend to want to use misdirection and more passing in order to scheme players open.

In 2016 under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan the Falcons tended to want to use their running backs as the primary option to score inside of the red zone. This was done by either running the ball or using them in space as receivers. The below spreadsheet demonstrates exactly what I mean:

2016 Atlanta Falcons Redzone Offense
Devonta Freeman171270.59%74217.50%
Mohamed Sanu13969.23%68413.40%
Tevin Coleman12866.67%29212.40%
Jacob Tamme11763.64%53311.30%
Justin Hardy10550.00%22410.30%
Julio Jones10550.00%30210.30%
Taylor Gabriel66100.00%4216.20%
Austin Hooper5360.00%1425.20%
Aldrick Robinson3266.67%913.10%
Joshua Perkins2150.00%802.10%
Nick Williams22100.00%2002.10%
Patrick DiMarco11100.00%111.00%
D.J. Tialavea11100.00%111.00%
Levine Toilolo100.00%001.00%
Terron Ward11100.00%1101.00%
Devonta Freeman53127960.20%
Tevin Coleman2272625.00%
Matt Ryan61606.80%
Terron Ward51705.70%
Taylor Gabriel1911.10%
Mohamed Sanu1501.10%

Notice how all-pro wide receiver Julio Jones is essentially the sixth and if you include the run, seventh option inside of the red zone. This strategy was effective because Jones dictates coverage so he opens up things for everyone else. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw touchdown passes to 11 different receivers inside of the red zone, and a huge part of that was the ability to not only run the ball but dictate coverage using Jones.

In 2017 under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the offensive philosophy changed which resulted in less production in the red zone. Below are the numbers for 2017:

2017 Atlanta Falcons Redzone Offense
Julio Jones19526.32%33125.00%
Mohamed Sanu12758.33%40515.80%
Austin Hooper9777.78%39211.80%
Devonta Freeman8562.50%60110.50%
Justin Hardy7457.14%2339.20%
Taylor Gabriel6233.33%1807.90%
Tevin Coleman44100.00%4635.30%
Marvin Hall200.00%002.60%
Levine Toilolo22100.00%1102.60%
Derrick Coleman100.00%001.30%
Andre Roberts100.00%001.30%
Ty Sambrailo100.00%001.30%
Devonta Freeman3470748.60%
Tevin Coleman2359532.90%
Matt Ryan51607.10%
Terron Ward5907.10%
Taylor Gabriel2202.90%
Mohamed Sanu1401.40%

The first stat that stands out is the amount of not rushing attempts but rushing touchdowns which went down from 88 and 16 respectively to 70  and 12. That means the Falcons had 18 less rushing attempts and four fewer touchdowns in the red zone from 2016 to 2017. This can be attributed to so many things, to include having fewer plays, as well as bad play at key positions on the offense such as the right guard position.

In short, the team didn’t have the same level of production running the ball and that creates a snowball effect that makes throwing the ball harder inside a small space. As I mentioned above in 2016 Ryan hit 11 receivers for touchdowns inside of the red zone, in 2017 that number dropped to six. You will also notice the amount of targets to Jones almost doubled from his 10 in 2016 to 19 in 2017.

Why is this a bad thing you may ask? Because targeting Jones who doesn’t have a long history of great production inside of the red zone, bogs down the offense and makes play calling more predictable because players know who’s going to get the targets. Do you see the change in philosophy now?

The Falcons went from feeding all pieces to feeding a few and the one who got targeted the most turned 19 targets into only 1 touchdown inside of the red zone, that is unacceptable. Now part of the issue is offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is learning not only how to best feature his players but he is still using Shanahan’s scheme which isn’t his own. Below are the numbers from Shanahan’s first year 2015.

2015 Atlanta Falcons Redzone Offense
Julio Jones221359.09%93528.60%
Devonta Freeman14964.29%69318.20%
Leonard Hankerson9666.67%46311.70%
Jacob Tamme8562.50%49110.40%
Roddy White8337.50%18110.40%
Justin Hardy6466.67%2607.80%
Nick Williams33100.00%1223.90%
Tevin Coleman200.00%002.60%
Patrick DiMarco22100.00%1622.60%
Terron Ward2150.00%802.60%
Devonta Freeman491161062.00%
Tevin Coleman1439117.70%
Terron Ward1024112.70%
Matt Ryan5906.30%
Patrick DiMarco1001.30%

Amazingly the numbers look almost identical between 2015 and 2017. Even the attempts and actual touchdowns are similar. To me, this means Shanahan had the same philosophy that is hurting Sarkisian, and that features their best player in the red zone and use that to open other things up. Again the issue here is Jones had never been very production in the red zone in recent years, that’s just not his game. Sarkisian and Ryan admitted during training camp that they were looking at every scheme Ryan had been in to help build the playbook. Outside of 2016, the Falcon’s most productive offense came in 2012. Here’s the numbers for that offense:

2012 Atlanta Falcons Redzone Offense
Roddy White20945.00%79421.70%
Julio Jones201155.00%108721.70%
Tony Gonzalez171270.59%85818.50%
Jason Snelling9777.78%2019.80%
Harry Douglas8675.00%3718.70%
Jacquizz Rodgers66100.00%2216.50%
Michael Turner33100.00%003.30%
Michael Palmer33100.00%1213.30%
Lousaka Polite200.00%002.20%
Mike Johnson11100.00%111.10%
Drew Davis11100.00%1511.10%
Kevin Cone100.00%001.10%
Michael TurnerATL521051061.90%
Jacquizz RodgersATL1736120.20%
Jason SnellingATL61607.10%
Matt RyanATL53516.00%
Luke McCownATL2-302.40%
Harry DouglasATL1-101.20%

It is important to remember Julio was a second-year veteran and had Roddy White and Tony Gonzales to take some of the weight off of him. Those three players performed great that year as they went on to account for 25 of Ryan’s 32 passing touchdowns.

Next. Atlanta Falcons: three moves to make after the Keanu Neal injury. dark

It is clear the Falcons lack an identity in the red zone. They want to feature their best player more but that hasn’t worked out thus far. In order for the Falcons to be successful as currently constructed, they must get back to spreading the football around. Jones will get his, but other players must also contribute and that won’t happen if plays aren’t drawn up for them. Balance is the key and Sarkisian must understand this if this offense is to take the next step forward.