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Super Bowl Preview: The Atlanta Falcons’ offense

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Breaking down the league’s most vaunted offensive unit.

Indianapolis Colts v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

OVERVIEW

Kyle Shanahan proved well before he began calling plays under the lights of the Georgia Dome that he was not simply resting on the laurels of his three-time Super Bowl-winning father, Mike, when he entered the NFL.

Four of the young mastermind’s first seven seasons as an offensive coordinator produced top-10 offenses, with the others largely suffering from a lack of talent and sub-par quarterback play.

After a rocky maiden voyage as Atlanta’s OC, Shanahan’s unit has blossomed into the most dominant offensive force in the league thanks to the acquisition of some key free agents and the growth of young talent.

SCHEME

The Falcons’ diversity, depth, cohesiveness, and explosiveness set them apart from most teams in the league.

It’s no secret that this offense goes through freak of nature Julio Jones (we’ll get to him in depth later). Shanahan takes full advantage of his unstoppable chess piece, not just by getting the ball in his hands, but by using him to open up room for others.

Jones is often used as a decoy in the passing game, running short routes to free up receivers behind him or deep routes to attract defenders’ attention and create space underneath or set up a deep strike elsewhere on the field.

What makes Atlanta’s offense truly dangerous is the arsenal general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant general manager Scott Pioli, both Belichick disciples, have collected to compliment the first-team All-Pro receiver. Jones’ fellow skill players certainly benefit from his presence, but they don’t need it to produce.

Five players recorded 630 yards or more from scrimmage, with three accumulating at least 940, per Pro Football Reference.

Quarterback Matt Ryan’s pass catchers also gained the second most yards after the catch in the league behind only New Orleans, according to SportingCharts. This is a credit to the aerial attack’s ability to threaten a defense at all levels of the field, particularly with its lethal screen game.

For all the fanfare Atlanta’s passing game deservedly attracts, the offense is far from one-dimensional.

Lethal duo Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman carried the Falcons’ wide zone run scheme to the league’s fifth-best rush-yards-per-game average (120.5) and tied with Tennessee and Chicago for fourth in yards-per-carry (4.6), per ESPN. The team’s average yards-per-carry jumped to 5.0 on first downs, which Belichick is well aware of.

Not only does the offensive line get the job done, but Atlanta’s receivers are also willing and very capable blockers.

If defenses decide to commit to stopping Atlanta’s two-headed beast in the backfield, Shanahan and Ryan are more than happy to dial up play-action, predominately boot concepts, and make them pay on the back-end.

In terms of game-planning and personnel deployment, Shananan’s scheme is similar to McDaniels’ in a few ways.

His offense is game-plan oriented, with certain personnel groupings and concepts being favored over others week-to-week based on the perceived weaknesses of the opponent.

Most of Atlanta’s formations include stacked or bunched receivers. This puts defenses in a bind, as it dissuades them from pressing receivers and makes it more difficult to defend floods because the routes are being run in such close proximity.

The Falcons use a heavy dose of motion and often put skill position players in nontraditional spots to force defenses to show their hand before the snap. In addition to making the opposition declare whether they are in man or zone coverage, motioning receivers can also change the strength of the formation or put more receivers in an area than the defense can cover if they fail to adjust.

While these nuances make the quarterback’s job a bit easier, you still need someone who can understand what he is seeing pre- and post-snap, process information quickly, and deliver the ball accurately to the correct receiver. That is precisely what Atlanta has in MVP-candidate Matt Ryan.

SCOUTING REPORT

QUARTERBACK

The Boston College product has taken full advantage of the weapons surrounding him in 2016 and turned in the best season of his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ second-best quarterback behind some guy named Tom Brady.

Ryan has the arm strength and accuracy to put the ball anywhere on the field with precision, velocity, and timing. He has the ability throw just as well from a clean pocket as he can with a 320-lb defensive tackle bearing down on him.

As effective as Ryan is inside the pocket, his 108.7 passer rating outside of it proves he is still a serious threat when using his exceptional mobility and athleticism to extend plays. Maintaining rush lanes and keeping Atlanta’s signal-caller contained will be a big area of emphasis leading up to the big game.

Ryan’s performance has been steady all season, but his accuracy and, to a lesser degree, his decision-making waned this season when defenses were able to apply consistent pressure.

Blitzing will not be an option against this offense, so the Patriots will have to confuse Atlanta’s blocking schemes by using stunts, twists, and keeping the offensive line on their toes regarding who is rushing from play-to-play.

RUNNING BACK

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are similar in a lot of ways — and that should scare the hell out of Patriots fans.

Though Freeman is only 5’9”, he weighs in at a bulky 210 lbs. He is powerful, violent, and routinely falls forward for additional yardage when tackled. His elite burst, vision, patience, and downhill style make him a perfect fit for Atlanta’s one-cut zone running scheme.

The FSU product rounds out his impressive skill-set as a ball carrier with soft hands, very good route-running, and deceptive breakaway speed.

Tevin Coleman brings all of those attributes to a 6’1”, 205 lb frame. If there is a true weakness in either of their games, I haven’t yet developed the scouting eye to spot it. These guys are a problem.

Paving the way for this fearsome tandem is PFF’s top-graded run-blocking fullback, Patrick DiMarco. He is a heavily featured member of Atlanta’s offense who can also split out wide or in the slot and contribute in the passing game.

WIDE RECEIVER

There isn’t anything I can say about Julio Jones that hasn’t been said already. He is the Rob Gronkowski of wide receivers: a truly unstoppable force that will eat one-on-one coverage for breakfast.

The speed, athleticism, agility, and footwork Jones displays are unfathomable for a man who comes in at 6’3”, 220 lbs. He runs crisp routes, has the hand-fighting skills of a wily boxer, can out-jump anyone, and hasn’t dropped a pass since Coach Dan Reeves last did the Dirty Bird.

What separates Jones from other athletic phenoms of his ilk in recent memory is his aggressiveness. He fights hard on every route, block, and catch attempt, using his massive frame and rare strength to turn grown men into gnats at a family picnic.

The man is just — wow.

Mohamed Sanu has been an excellent compliment to Jones, providing another big, physical presence at the wide receiver position. He is the team’s primary Z receiver in two receiver sets and typically kicks inside when a third receiver takes the field.

Though he runs above-average routes, the 6’2”, 210 lb Sanu relies more on his size and strength positions to win match-ups. He is similar to Brandon LaFell in that neither is a true vertical threat, but both can run away from coverage if defensive backs get sloppy or lose badly at the line.

Sanu is capable of making catches through a lot of contact, but will drop the occasional routine ball.

He is also 5 of 5 for 177 yards and 2 touchdowns when throwing the ball in his career, so the Patriots’ defense must be alert to trick plays whenever Sanu is on the field.

Cleveland castoff Taylor Gabriel’s season has been another entry in the sad story of the ever-flailing Browns organization. The diminutive Gabriel stands at only 5’8” from the ground and weighs a mere 165 lbs, but boy can he fly.

Gabriel isn’t a great route-runner, but his ankle-breaking quickness and breakaway speed can result in game-changing plays if the defense is not careful.

Justin Hardy and Aldrick Robinson have received a good amount of snaps this season in spot roles. Both are quick, undersized, but aggressive guys who don’t pose much of a vertical threat.

TIGHT END

At this stage in his career, rookie Austin Hooper is mostly a move guy whose presence as the sole tight end usually indicates pass or boot action. He is athletic and has seam-stretching ability, but is clearly raw as a route runner and has suspect hands. He shows good awareness of where to sit in zone coverage.

Fourth-year man Levine Toilolo has a pretty limited role in the passing game, but does offer value as a check-down option, in the red-zone, and can be relied on to bring the ball in if the defense fails to account for him. From what I have seen, he is primarily used as an in-line blocker in the running game and additional pass protector on play-action passes.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Falcons field the lightest offensive line by combined weight in the entire league. This may seem like a detriment on the surface, but what the group lacks in bulk they make up for in athleticism, which is a big advantage in their zone run scheme.

This unit is headlined by another former Brown in second-team All-Pro Alex Mack. Mack is a well-rounded, intelligent player and a tremendous athlete. He sets the protections for the Falcons’ offensive line and makes most of the calls and checks at the line.

Atlanta has one solid book-end in budding young left tackle Jake Matthews and an exceptional one in right tackle Ryan Schraeder. The latter is one of the best in the league at his position, while Matthews excels when the quarterback drops back to pass but struggles mightily as a run blocker.

Left guard Andy Levitre is another solid player on the offensive line who holds up well whether the offense passes or runs.

The glaring weakness on this unit is right guard Chris Chester, who PFF ranks 63rd out of 75 qualifying guards. When you turn on the tape, its easy to see why. He has been routinely bullied by good defensive lines and can regularly be seen giving up pressure or being pushed back in the running game. This is a match-up New England can and should exploit.

GAME-PLAN

Stopping the run on early downs and forcing Atlanta into 3rd and longs will be vital to stopping this juggernaut. When defenses play two-deep off coverage in these situations, Ryan is more than happy to throw short of the sticks and let his receivers make a play.

Tackling will be a major area of emphasis all game, but it will be especially important in these situations to get Atlanta off the field.

Generating pressure rushing only three or four will also be key to slowing down the Falcons, an area where the Patriots haven’t particularly excelled this post-season. If Matt Ryan has all day to sit in the pocket, he will pick you apart.

In terms of match-ups, the Patriots have one of the deepest secondaries in the NFL, and I believe they have the artillery to make life hard on the Falcons’ offense.

New England’s 2014 contest against the Detroit Lions and Calvin Johnson may have given us the team’s blueprint for containing Julio Jones. In that game, Brandon Browner played Johnson tight for most of the game, playing off coverage when Megatron lined up tight to the offensive formation or in 3rd and very long situations. Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon provided coverage over the top on nearly every snap.

New England’s scheme hasn’t changed much since then, though they have incorporated more cover 2 this season, so I expect Eric Rowe to cover Jones for most of the game, as he is the closest thing the Patriots have to Browner.

Jones will get his catches. As I mentioned earlier, he is simply too talented to shut-down. But Rowe has the best size and length of the Patriots’ defensive backs, making the most well-equipped to disrupt Jones in his routes and at the catch-point.

Logan Ryan versus Mohamed Sanu is almost too perfect. Ryan is an average athlete by NFL standards who lacks deep speed, but he wins with his physicality, intelligence, and exceptional ball skills. As I mentioned, the former Bengal is not a burner, and corners that keep him in check have done so by getting their hands on him and contesting catches, which are areas where Ryan excels.

The corner is also familiar with Sanu from their time as teammates at Rutgers, and we all know how much of an advantage Ryan gains when he is familiar with an opponent.

The Falcons use 11 personnel the least of any team in the league, so Butler will see his fair share of Sanu, a task he is more than capable of handling.

When Atlanta does field a third receiver, they will be shadowed (read erased) by Butler. Gabriel is a talented player, but neither he nor the receivers behind him can hold a candle to New England’s second-team All-Pro cornerback.

Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung shouldn’t have much of a problem handling Atlanta’s tight-ends, though they could be in for some battles when covering Freeman or Coleman.

The defense can’t cover the Falcons’ backs with safeties all game, otherwise they’ll get shredded on the ground, but Patricia must do everything in his power to limit the number of times his linebackers are matched up against them.

CONCLUSION

The Patriots have the personnel to make Atlanta one-dimensional by stifling the run game and the talent and depth on the back-end to challenge their aerial attack.

Bottom line, this offense can go after you in all sorts of ways, and it has proven that against just about every defense it has lined up against. They may not be indefensible, but they are the most formidable unit in the NFL this season, and it will take the Patriots defense’s best effort of the year to contain them and earn the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.