As we head into Week 16 of the NFL season, the playoff picture is starting to clear up. The prohibitive favorite in the AFC is the New England Patriots, who will once again have the top seed, a first-round bye, and home field.
When we talk the NFC, people bring up the Cowboys, Seahawks, and the two hottest teams, the Packers and Giants. Well, we need to turn our attention south to the Atlanta Falcons. They are quietly putting together a historic offensive season and an NFC South championship.
Atlanta’s offense is currently on pace to finish eighth all-time in points per game at 33.5. Entering Week 15, they were first in DVOA, via Football Outsiders. They are first in the NFL in yards per play, second in yards per game, tied for second in the least amount of giveaways, and third in passing yards per game.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is leading the league in rating, yards per pass attempt, completion percentage of deep passes, and a not-too-shabby third in total completion rate at 68.6 percent. It’s no wonder that Julio Jones is leading almost every important WR category.
They also have a two-headed monster at running back, led by Devonta Freeman averaging 4.6 yards per carry and Tevin Coleman picking up the rest of the carries.
Atlanta isn’t without faults. Their defense is suspect and at the bottom of the league in most categories. They allow 25.6 points per game and are the third-worst defense on third down, allowing opposing offenses to convert on 43 percent of their attempts. However, there are some bright spots and my colleague, Stephen White, in his eloquent way, wrote about their standout defensive end, Vic Beasley Jr., who’s tearing it up this season.
Atlanta has the makings of a classic “dome” team. Excellent offense at home and a defense that just gets by; on the road, in bad conditions, they falter. But this year might be different.
The Falcons have proven they can travel well. In back-to-back weeks, earlier in the season, they went to Denver and Seattle. They beat Denver soundly, and started out slow against Seattle. Their first three offensive drives ended in a punt, strip sack turnover, and another punt after consecutive sacks. That’s a recipe for disaster in Seattle. However, they stuck around, made some great plays, and had they gotten a pass interference call late in the game, they would’ve won at Seattle.
Atlanta also won at Oakland, Tampa, and New Orleans. Those are impressive victories.
The two reasons they can take their show on the road are the offensive line and a brilliant passing game.
Alex Mack and the Falcons offensive line
The line is perfectly built for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, one that’s very multiple in formations and plays. They specialize in the outside-zone run game and are deadly on play actions. They have so many formations, motions, shifts, etc. to dress up their run game, but it’s still a basic outside zone.
To solidify their offensive line heading into this season, they signed Alex Mack who had previously played with coach Shanahan in Cleveland. (My brother played under Shanahan as well and always raved about his offense and coaching style). Mack has excellent balance, power through his hips and finish. He’s been a monster this season and has single-handedly made them one of the best running teams in the league.
Let’s take a closer look at how Mack has made a difference for the Falcons.
For the purposes of this discussion, I pulled the games against the best defenses they’ve played. Why study this team against bad teams? Also, beyond Mack, just look at the surge the rest of the line makes.
Here against Carolina, it’s a simple inside-zone run with a man block on the backside. Instead of asking the right tackle to chase down the Will linebacker, they keep him big on the defensive end, and allow the tight end from the backfield, who has a better angle, get to the Will.
This play is designed to run behind the Mack and Chris Chester, the right guard. Mack powers through the nose, allowing Chester to gain leverage, then works up to All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Mack dominated him here.
Kuechly tries to redirect towards the hole, but Mack accelerates his hips, runs his feet, and moves him. Most of the time, linemen fall down when a great linebacker reacts like this. Not Mack. This is impressive. Also, notice the movement by the rest of the offensive line!
Here is Mack doing the same thing against a defensive tackle. Square, hips engaged, hands inside, great balance and finish. This isn’t easy. Most lineman don’t make this look easy.
Here’s a clip of the run game against the Chiefs. I could run through this hole for a first down. This is weak-side outside zone with a lead back. It’s freaking beautiful.
The right tackle stretches the hole, the fullback cuts the linebacker, while Mack and the left guard work a perfect combo. Mack pries open that shoulder of the nose, which allows the left guard to get there. Then, Mack locks up the middle linebacker.
A brilliant game plan for passing
I don’t profess to know everything about the pass game, but I can see where offensive coordinators have brilliant game-plan designs. The Falcons have used their game plan to take advantage of defenses this season.
Let’s look at the game in Denver.
First, the Falcons align either the fullback or tight end into the boundary. This allows Ryan to get a presnap read, man or zone. If a linebacker walks out to cover this player, which he does, he knows it’s man.
The back, Coleman, motions out into the slot to make it an empty formation. This is a huge mismatch. Coleman against a linebacker. In most empty formations, you’d motion the back all the way out and leave the tight end in the slot. The tight end vs. a linebacker isn’t a mismatch; a running back vs. a linebacker is.
Smart design here. The Falcons run a basic four-vertical concept against two-man and score a touchdown on the mismatch.
Next is Seattle. Both of these plays are from a 3x1 set but they align differently. However, they know Seattle runs a one-high scheme and that Richard Sherman will be aggressive in the flat. They need to put pressure on the free safety, Earl Thomas.
The first play is Julio Jones in the slot, with a tight end motioning out. He runs a short route, takes Sherman with him. Julio runs to the corner of the end zone while the inside receiver, the tight end, runs a corner route to take Sherman’s eyes. Jones is wide open for a touchdown!
This time, it’s the same general concept, but with tight ends. All the attention will be on Jones, and they put Thomas in a bind again. Atlanta must have sensed this was a weakness in Seattle’s defense and took advantage of it.
Lastly, in the passing game, it’s no surprise Atlanta is the best play-action team in the league. When you run the ball well, have a quarterback with a great arm, and wide receivers who can run, the play-action pass will always be there.
Not much to say about this one. The run action, the route holds the safety at the top and Gabriel is wide open. It’s so simple and so awesome when it works.
It’s time for my favorite play in football. I LOVE the tight end sneak throwback play. It almost always works.
When you’re running the ball well, especially outside zone, the bootleg will always be there. Atlanta runs their fair share of those. But every once in awhile, the defense will fall asleep with the same old over routes in play action. They lose the tight end on the backside.
Here it is against the Panthers. The tight end is WIDE OPEN! I love this so much.
Atlanta isn’t perfect. They have issues, as do the rest of the NFC contenders. But don’t count them out. They can score in bunches and don’t have the typical “dome” playing style or attitude.