Here’s how the Atlanta Falcons opened up their game with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. Each one was a warning shot to the rest of the league that it’s time to take Atlanta seriously as a title contender.
Any team that can score in bunches is a deadly proposition. That’s why fans, analysts and teams are hanging onto the notion of Pittsburgh and Green Bay being teams “no one wants to play” in the playoffs.
But why not the Falcons?
Behind offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and MVP-candidate Matt Ryan at quarterback they’ve orchestrated the No. 1 offense in the NFL. Take the pick of your stats: DVOA, yards per play, total points, points per game, the Falcons lead them all.
Or better still, turn on the tape.
Shanahan has developed one of the most dynamic and versatile offenses in the league. As I detailed earlier in the season, they attack from all varieties of formations and alignments to create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses and simple post-snap reads for Ryan.
Ryan’s own development has been impressive. A year ago, his first in Shanahan’s system, he often looked tentative; unwilling and unsure when to pull the trigger (and far too often throwing it to the other team when he did). This year he’s been as assured and precise as any quarterback around, carefully carving up opposing defenses as he led the league’s top passing attack (No. 1 pass offense by DVOA), and more willing than ever to let his receivers go make plays down the field.
The biggest area of improvement has been Ryan’s movement skills, both inside and outside of the pocket.
Shanahan’s inside/outside-zone running scheme (a carbon copy of the one his father ran to two Super Bowl titles in Denver) requires the quarterback to be a legitimate running threat to maximize the vast array of boot-action concepts that are littered throughout the scheme.
On their outside-zone run, a foundational play, the backside defensive end is left unblocked. If the quarterback isn’t a legitimate rushing threat, that end can crash down the line of scrimmage unopposed and make a play in the backfield. With Ryan’s new-found legs, he forces that backside end to sit down on the play, eliminating the defender from the play and making it a 1-on-1 contest for the rest of the offense. That’s good news when you have the likes of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
But beyond the bootlegs and rollouts, Ryan has shown better awareness, manipulating the pocket (sticking and sliding) to buy time and evade pressure.
His performance Sunday was the icing on what should be a MVP season. Earlier this year, I dismissed Ryan’s chances. I thought he was playing excellently within the structure of the system: getting the ball out on time, winning through scheme design and doing so with the help of more talent than any other top contender.
Well, I was wrong. All three of those things remain true, but Ryan has proven over the second half of the season that those are in conjunction with his own excellence, not the reason for it.
Improvement in the ground game has certainly been a difference-maker, with the offseason signing of center Alex Mack being the catalyst. The Falcons’ rushing attack has been a magnificent combination of speed, power, scheme and talent, with all of it clicking together at an average of 4.5 yards per carry (10th in the league). That, in turn, has led to the NFL’s best play-action attack. Not only do they run more play-action attempts than anyone in the league (26 percent of their offense), they run it more effectively than anyone else (10.5 yards per play).
It is a duel-headed monster that makes them just as difficult to prepare for as the Dallas Cowboys or New England Patriots, and even tougher than the Packers or Steelers.
While the offense has continued to drop 30-burgers for fun, quietly, the defense has been improving. It isn’t an elite group, but it’s peaking at the right time, and in the right spots, to give the Falcons a shot at running through the NFC.
It’s not like the Falcons do much to shock opponents. It’s an execution defense that runs a base cover-3 style similar to the Seattle Seahawks and rarely deviates or diversifies their coverages (though they’ll use late safety rotations to disguise some things). Instead, they rely on playing sound football, not complicating things, rallying to the ball and letting their talent make plays.
Across the board, at all three levels, they have elite-speed and a number of hybrid players who can play multiple positions and take away some of the mismatches that offenses are constantly working to exploit.
Rookie safety Keanu Neal has been the most impressive piece. That’s partly because he’s playing a near-identical role to the one he played in college: matching up in man-coverage on tight ends, lining up in the box on running downs and rotating late to different spots on the field.
But it’s not just Neal. Even with top-five cornerback Desmond Trufant out for the playoffs, in Jalen Collins, Brian Poole and Robert Alford, the secondary is loaded with young players who are able to lineup in different spots. Or, more accurately, they can take whoever lines up in front of them without needing to move or communicate (the best way to prevent miscommunication and breakdowns in coverage).
The main issue is up front. If you can’t get a pass rush in the playoffs you have no shot. And for years now, the Falcons have struggled to generate enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
This year hasn’t been much different. They closed the regular season 21st in the league in pressure rate and 22nd in adjusted sack rate. If a team doesn’t drop the quarterback, they at least have to make up for it in pressures. The Falcons have done neither at a high level.
That’s improved somewhat of late. No defense in the league runs more games up front: stunts, twists and linemen exchanges, all in a bid to create more favorable matchups for the front and take advantage of its quickness.
It’s had a profound impact on second-year pass rusher Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks and has gone from a sub-package player to a superstar in 12 weeks.
Beasley’s first-step quickness ranks among the top edge rushers anywhere. And while his in-line power doesn’t wow and his hand usage isn’t always textbook, the Falcons have done a nice job of accentuating his natural abilities by creating easier 1-on-1 matchups with interior linemen.
One of their most effective tactics is a tackle-end stunt that sees Beasley and his former Clemson teammate, Grady Jarrett, exchange gaps, particularly from a split front (two three-technique defensive tackles that widen the front). Both are explosive athletes who can overwhelm linemen with pure speed. By stunting Beasley inside, the Falcons are able to get him a “head up” rush on an interior lineman, and often his speed will allow him to arrive at the gap before a center or guard can even process it.
It hasn’t just been the scheme. Beasley’s motor has always been exemplary, but even that’s improved. And his improved bend has turned him into a more dangerous rusher off the edge.
If the Falcons are to make a deep postseason run, they need Beasley to play as though he’s the best player on the field. Fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of talent he’s flashed in recent weeks.
With a swarming defense that complements the league’s most explosive offense, the Falcons have a combination that everyone in the playoffs should begin to fear.