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How the Falcons made the tight end the key to their offense

Few teams can do what the Falcons can with their tight end. NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains how one player opens a world of possibilities.

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Super Bowl week is here! You will read, watch, and listen to endless amounts of Super Bowl breakdowns, but this is the only breakdown you’ll read written by two offensive lineman. I enlisted the help of my brother, Kansas City right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, for this special Super Bowl breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons offense. He played with Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland, and has raved about his offense ever since.

We all know the parts in Atlanta’s offense. Eventual league MVP Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, the two-headed running back machine of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and Alex Mack the anchor in the middle. However, the player that makes the running game, and as a result, the play-action game work so well, is the tight end.

The tight end is moving everywhere in this offense. The Patriots will need to locate where he lines up, where he’s motioning to, and how that will change what the Falcons are doing.

In Shanahan’s offense, the tight end is often lined up off the ball. He can be a more dangerous asset there because he can go in any direction: He can release for a pass attempt, he can be a front-side or backside blocker as if he were on the line of scrimmage, and most importantly, he can cross the formation at the snap and either seal the backside or release and be a weapon in the pass game.

This article will show you how using the tight end like this in the run game opens up their play-action passing game by giving Ryan the windows to hit his deep crossing routes.

The outside zone

Before we get into the tight end, let’s talk real quick about the goal of the Falcons outside-zone run scheme.

The easiest way to describe outside zone is the this … On the front side of the run, the offensive line and sometimes a tight end are trying to reach the outside shoulder of the defender, after the first two steps. If you try flipping your hips too soon, or reaching the defender at that point, the defender can run underneath you to make the play. While in the process of making your reach block, you will run your feet and widen the defensive front to the play side of the run. What’s critical on any zone run, more so on outside zone, is the backside cutting off the defense. This is normally done with a cut block.

When the Falcons run their outside zone, there are very few combo blocks. If you spend too much on a combo block, the lineman will never be able to catch up to linebacker he’s assigned to block. One way to help the flow of the linebackers is the tight end sliding back weak. More on that below. So the Falcons have an offensive line that excels at single blocking, none more than Mack. He’s one of the few centers who can reach a shaded nose tackle or a defensive tackle in the A gap. This allows his play-side guard to work with the tackle and get up to his linebacker. This run against Seattle from the Divisional round is the best example of their zone concept.

It’s a weak-side outside zone. First, notice no double teams. The backside linemen execute their blocks. The left guard attempts a cut block. It doesn’t work, but he gets in the way of the linebacker and it slows him down. The left tackle completes a turn back. His defender goes behind him, and he turns back to block him.

The beauty of this play is the front side. Mack reaches the nose tackle, and then finishes him 15 yards downfield. Just awesome. The right guard blocks his linebacker and the right tackle widens his defensive end. He doesn’t “reach” the defensive end, but by running his feet on contact and widening the hole, he allows the back to pour through the B Gap.

Lastly, the tight end. He motions past the quarterback and back off the ball to the weak side. He motions past the quarterback trying to get Seattle to reload its front. Some defenses, when the tight end moves strong, will realign their front. If Seattle is in the process of moving when the ball is snapped, it’s a huge advantage for the Falcons. Motioning across the quarterback can also give you a blitz read. If a defense always realigns with a formation strength change, which they don’t here, they are bringing pressure.

Lastly, notice the safety down in the box, No. 31, for Seattle. He’s unblocked. Because the Falcons will slide back the tight end, run at the tight end, and go boot/naked, it holds the safety just a tad longer. He doesn’t know what the play will be. That gives this run even more time to develop.

And the wide shot.

Next up, the Falcons are again running outside zone, but the tight end is sliding back to cut off the defensive end, allowing for a larger hole for the back. If the tight end doesn’t slide back, the defensive end makes this play for no gain. Outside zone isn’t designed to cut back this far; however, it does for one reason. This is called getting bookended.

Ever notice a bookend? They force the books back in a direction. The same thing happens at tackle when you don’t stretch that front-side defensive end. The left tackle here gets bookended and it forces the run back inside. He gets no stretch. On inside zone, this doesn’t matter as much because the back’s path allows him to get back inside quicker, and he’s never trying to get outside the tackle.

If the Falcons don’t slide back the tight end here, it’s a no-gain run. Again, check out No. 31 in the box for Seattle. He’s playing just a tad slow here because he’s trying to read what’s going on. When you play slow, you don’t make plays.

The passing game

Alright, now we get to see how Atlanta uses the tight end in the passing game to open up huge throwing lanes for the quarterback.

The tight end is sliding back on this play-action fake. The Atlanta offensive line does an outstanding job of selling the run. The play fake by Ryan is critical to this play and he’s able to sell it because of the tight end. When the tight end slides back, notice the defensive end crash all the way down to stop the run. Then notice both the safety and linebacker bite hard on the play fake and the wide receiver reverse action. When the defensive end crashes all the way down, the tight end can easily block him.

Atlanta doesn’t complete this pass, but just sliding the tight end back affected three defensive players and opened up the throwing lane for Ryan, as well as giving him time to see his routes develop.

We all saw Julio Jones make this insane run after a short catch over the middle. He’s a freak. But let’s dive into the blocking up front and how it opened up a lane for the throw and catch.

When you sell run action, the goal is getting the linebackers to step up thinking it’s a run, allowing the quarterback to drop the ball over them and between the safeties. That’s on display here.

The Packers are in man coverage. When the Falcons execute the fake, with the tight end sliding back, the linebackers switch spots on the field. They aren’t even thinking about the pass. Zero thought to it. Ryan gets an easy throw. Second, when the tight end slides back to block, he eats up two defenders because they are thinking boot leg, with the tight end sliding back into the flat or that the tight end will cut them on a run.

Just because I’m a sucker for the fullback, here are the Falcons running an old-school, two-back play-action fake. It’s a simple play, but well executed. Normally, Shanahan asked his fullback to actually hit the Will linebacker, to make it look like a run. This will stun the backer and allow the fullback to leak into the flat. However, there’s no player for him to hit here, so he continues on his way. The Packers don’t even account for the fullback into the flat. It’s remarkable. This play is so seldom used, the Falcons get a huge gain from it.

What you should notice by now is how well the line, the backs, and Ryan sell the run fake. This is absolute trust in the system and technique. It’s always tough for young players to sell the run on a pass play because things can go wrong. The defender can rush upfield fast or make an inside move. But the opposite is true. If you sell the run like the Falcons line do, it holds the defensive line. They stop their feet to look around for the run.

It’s beautiful when it works properly. Also it’s clear Ryan knows the line has his back and will block it up, allowing him the time to chuck it deep.

There are so many options for the tight end when he’s always moving. He can block for a run, go out for a pass, or become a blocker. Why don’t more teams use this concept? Well, because most tight ends can’t block. So the Falcons have done an excellent job of matching their personnel to their scheme. Can’t wait to watch how they attack the Patriots defense on Sunday.