The biggest personnel change in the Atlanta Falcons offense from their record-setting 2016 season to their surprisingly pedestrian 2017 production is their change from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian. Shanahan was named the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and Sarkisian came from the University of Alabama.
Would anyone be surprised if Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban, the former defensive coordinator of Bill Belichick, gave the Patriots their entire playbook?
I spoke with David Choate of TheFalcoholic.com to learn about the difference in offensive philosophy and the Patriots coaching staff also shared their opinion on the changes.
“Essentially, what we've seen is a more conservative version of Kyle Shanahan's record-shattering 2016 offense,” Choate writes. “One that doesn't put players in motion quite as often, one that is a little more reluctant to do creative things like splitting Tevin Coleman out wide, and one that has struggled to get receivers spread out and open. Sarkisian appears to be feeling out his weapons and how he can use them to get the most out of this passing game, but he hasn't come close to figuring it out.
“Take Julio Jones, who has just one red zone target and isn't getting the deep looks his overall excellence would demand. Or take Taylor Gabriel, who has been targeted quite a bit in recent weeks but hasn't produced much of anything, thanks to Sark's inability to scheme him open.
“The Falcons have also shown a disconcerting habit of getting away from the run in close games, which has almost burned them a couple of times and certainly helped cost them the game against the Miami Dolphins. The weapons are all still here, but Sark hasn't figured out how to utilize them as effectively as Shanahan, and chances are it'll take him a while to get anywhere close to that.”
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia took a more delicate approach to comparing the past two Falcons offenses.
“It's hard to just straight compare let's call it game 19 to where we are currently in the season,” Patricia said. “We're just kind of going off of what they're doing right now. Obviously, taking a look at what they did last year there is a lot of carryover to the offense and there's a lot of skill players that are back, the quarterback. I think Coach Sarkisian has done a great job implementing the system that was already in place plus adding his own variation to it and his style of offense too.
“I would say what they're doing right now is just a great job of a balanced attack, both in the run and the passing game. The ball is coming out really quick then they're also pushing the ball downfield with their shot plays which are very dangerous with the speed that they have at the skill positions [with] both of the backs like I mentioned and then also with their receiving corps.”
The Falcons offense in 2017 has called a passing play on 58.8% of snaps, a small uptick from the 57.7% passing mix in 2016. The passing attack has become slightly less vertical, though, with 15.6% of passes going 15+ yards down the field in 2017, versus 17.2% of the passes in 2016.
Bill Belichick isn’t ready to believe that any of the changes is related to offensive philosophy, agreeing with Choate that it might just be a matter of a coach settling into a new personnel group and feeling out their strengths.
“I’m not really trying to compare too much to what it was,” Belichick said. “I think what we’re dealing with more is what we have right now in front of us. They’re a very good offense, a very explosive offense.”
“Again, we’re only five games into the season,” he added. “How much of that is dictated by whatever the circumstances were in the first five games, how much of it is different coaching philosophy? I don’t know. I think basically there are more similarities than differences to last year – let’s put it that way – in all three phases of the game, but there are certainly some differences.”
Belichick also noted that the Falcons have been running the ball well, the offensive line is experienced, and the receivers can attack all three levels of the field. “They’re very well balanced,” he noted.
Any changes in the Falcons offense, as far as Belichick could be concerned, is similar to why the Patriots defense appears to start from square one every season. There are new players and new coaches and the team is working to build their fundamentals on a week-to-week basis until all facets of the offense are clicking down the final stretch of the season.
Whatever has happened over the past five weeks isn’t a great indicator of what the offense is capable of accomplishing, especially when they were setting records in 2016. Once Coach Sarkisian figures out the best way to integrate his offensive tweaks into the skeleton of Shanahan’s old offensive playbook, then the Atlanta offense will take flight.
And as far as Bill Belichick is concerned, that could very well happen this week.