That phrase captures the Atlanta Falcons' expectations when coach Dan Quinn tabbed Kyle Shanahan to revamp an offense that was loaded with star-studded talent on the perimeter. After watching the "Dirty Birds" run out to a 3-0 start behind a dynamic attack -- Atlanta ranks third in overall offense and second in passing offense -- that is creating headaches for defensive coordinators around the NFL, I wanted to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film, to see how the Falcons are lighting up scoreboards all over the league.
1) Matt Ryan is thriving in Kyle Shanahan's dynamic scheme.
Ryan, who has been regarded as a borderline top-10 quarterback since being picked third overall in the 2008 NFL Draft, could cement his status as an elite player directing the Falcons' high-powered offense under Shanahan. The creative offensive coordinator has installed a quarterback-friendly scheme featuring a number of concepts that ideally suit Ryan's skills as a quick-rhythm passer with superb accuracy, anticipation and timing.
From the dynamic "quick game," which features a host of bubble screens and slants, to the exotic play-action passing game, which comprises an assortment of run-action fakes from stationary and moving pockets, the cleverly designed passing game has put Ryan in his comfort zone by allowing him to quickly sort through his reads and deliver the ball as soon as he hits the top of his drops. Most importantly, the diversity of the passing game has prevented opponents from honing in on Ryan's whereabouts within the pocket, helping the offensive line provide better protection for the veteran.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the Falcons' first three games this season, I've been impressed with the clever scripts and play designs Shanahan has used to attack the vulnerable areas in the opponents' coverage and blitz schemes. For instance, against the Eagles in Week 1, the Falcons featured a play-action-heavy game plan to neutralize a fierce pass rush. Against the Cowboys in Week 3, the script featured more quick-rhythm throws from stack formations, to exploit Dallas' man-to-man coverage. Against the New York Giants in Week 2, the Falcons mixed in some misdirection play-action plays to take advantage of undisciplined defenders on the second level.
Let's take a look at some of the creative concepts Shanahan has used to help Ryan find his groove this season:
Ryan is one of the best in the business at delivering the ball on time when he reaches the top of his drop. The eighth-year pro is terrific throwing slants, speed outs and "basic" routes (digs) on three- and five-step drops from under center or out of the shotgun. The Falcons have incorporated a number of these concepts into the game plan to help Ryan get the ball out of his hands quickly from the pocket. These throws help the veteran establish a rhythm and get the ball in the hands of dangerous playmakers on the move on the perimeter. As a result, these simple plays can produce big gains when Julio Jones, Roddy White or Leonard Hankerson breaks a tackle in the open field.
Against the Cowboys, the Falcons featured a number of quick-rhythm throws from stack alignments to create easy throws for Ryan on the perimeter. In the play depicted below, the Falcons are aligned in a stack formation to the left, with Jones positioned on the line in front of Hankerson. At the snap, Jones will take an outside release and run a speed out at 12 yards. Hankerson runs a whip route that starts across the field, but instructs him to return to the outside. With the Cowboys' executing a "banjo" call (two defenders will play in-and-out on stack release), the clever play design disrupts the defenders' rules and allows Jones to get outside leverage on Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne. Ryan delivers the ball on time and on target to Jones for a 14-yard gain on an easy rhythm throw (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Later in the game, the Falcons generate a big play on a quick-rhythm concept. In the play depicted below, Jones is positioned at WR3 and instructed to run a "basic" (dig) route at 12 yards. The WR2 (Nick Williams) works upfield on a clear route, with the WR1 (White) running a dart slant. The Cowboys have a "cutter" (safety Barry Church) positioned in the middle of the field to jump any crossing routes at short or intermediate distances. With the dart slant attracting the attention of the "cutter," Jones is able to run unobstructed into the void between the hashes. Ryan sees the defender settle on the underneath and delivers a dart to Jones between the hashes. Jones takes care of the rest and runs away from the defense on the way to a 45-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The bread and butter of Shanahan's passing game is the play-action package. The crafty play designer will throw off the reads of second-level defenders by incorporating full-flow play-action movement (the offensive line shows run blocking, with the tight end on the play-side staying in to sell the run) at the point of attack. These plays lure linebackers and safeties to the line of scrimmage, leaving voids over the middle of the field for deep crossers and "sit-down" routes. With Ryan adept at selling the run fake and quickly getting his eyes back on the defense to decipher the coverage, the Falcons' play-action passing game is problematic for aggressive defenses intent on flowing quickly to the ball.
Against the Eagles in Week 1, the Falcons used a semi-bootleg off "stretch" action to produce a big play on the perimeter. In the play depicted below, the Falcons align in an ace formation, with "12" personnel on the field (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs). Ryan will fake a stretch to running back Devonta Freeman to the left before executing a half-roll to the right. The Falcons complement the run-fake with pull action from the back-side tight end (Jacob Tamme). With the action indicating run to the Eagles' linebackers, White is able to cross the field unimpeded on his deep over route. Ryan delivers a perfect pass to White for a 22-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Later in the second quarter, the Falcons used a "stretch" action fake to create an explosive play in the passing game. In the play depicted below, the Falcons are aligned in an I-formation, with White and Hankerson set up with "nasty" splits (the receivers are aligned within 5 yards of the offensive tackles). Ryan will fake the stretch play to the right before setting up in the pocket. Notice how the tight end and fullback carry out their run fakes to sell the stretch play. The hard action lures the Eagles' second-level defenders to the line of scrimmage, leaving a void for White on the crossing route. Ryan delivers a pinpoint pass for an easy 23-yard completion (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against the Cowboys in Week 3, the Falcons used play action and a little deception to score a late touchdown. In the play depicted below, the Falcons are aligned in a slot heavy formation, with Jones and White stacked on the left. Ryan will field the snap and execute an outside run-fake to his left before rolling to his right on a bootleg. Jones sneaks behind the line of scrimmage to run a flat route to the right. Ryan sells the fake and waits for his star receiver to clear traffic before tossing the ball to Jones in the front corner of the end zone. The combination of deception and misdirection creates an easy scoring opportunity for the Falcons(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Ryan is thriving in Shanahan's dynamic offense. Not only is he completing 66.4 percent of his passes, but he is averaging over 300 pass yards per game (315.3) and posting a 98.6 passer rating. With Ryan already playing at a high level while adjusting to a new system, the eighth-year pro could post a 5,000-yard season and spark a run at the NFC South title.
2) Julio Jones is the best WR on the planet.
I need to issue an apology to Jones after failing to include him as one of the top three receivers in the NFL on a recent installment of the "Move the Sticks" podcast. Despite considering Jones a premier playmaker and elite pass catcher, I thought Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Antonio Brown were superior players heading into the season, based on their stellar resumes. But after watching Jones torch every defender in sight over the past three weeks, I believe the fifth-year pro might be the best receiver on the planet.
Sure, I might be exaggerating a bit, but there is no disputing Jones' dominance as a playmaker this season. He is on track to become a Triple Crown winner (first in receptions, receiving yards and TD receptions) after emerging as the focal point of the Falcons' offense under Shanahan. Jones is averaging 146.7 receiving yards on 11.3 receptions per game. Yes, those numbers pop off the stat sheet, but not until I dug into the All-22 Coaches Film did I develop a greater appreciation for what Jones is doing to defenses on the perimeter.
Measuring 6-foot-3 and 220-pounds with sub-4.4 speed, Jones is a freakish athlete with a remarkable combination of size, speed and athleticism. He exhibits rare stop-start quickness and acceleration for a big receiver, and his superb balance and body control make him one of the best route runners in the game. Not to mention, he is an explosive playmaker with the strength and power to overwhelm defenders with his physicality down the field. Considering his strong hands and remarkable ball skills, it is nearly impossible to neutralize Jones without a constant bracket or double team in his direction.
While teams have attempted to use exotic coverage to slow down Jones, the Falcons have creatively found ways to get their top target one-on-one opportunities on the perimeter. The Falcons have positioned him on the outside and in the slot in two-back and spread formations. In addition, they have put Jones on the move and varied his alignments in stack formations to prevent opponents from getting a bead on his potential whereabouts at all times. Consequently, opponents have been forced to abandon their bracket plans due to vulnerabilities created by Jones' varied deployments. Thus, the Pro Bowler has seen more one-on-one opportunities than most elite receivers are afforded in games.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film from the Cowboys game, it was apparent that Shanahan has made a concerted effort to put his top playmaker in various positions in multiple formations to prevent opponents from throwing a blanket over him. Although he spent the majority of the game positioned on the outside, Jones also aligned in the slot as a WR2 or WR3, to disrupt any potential "cutters" working to his direction between the hashes. With motions and stack alignments also creating potential rubs or picks at the line of scrimmage, Jones' ability to get quality touches in the passing game was amplified. According to NFL Media's research team, Ryan has connected on 34 of 46 targets to Jones, resulting in 440 yards, four scores and a 132.5 passer rating. Check out a montage of Jones' devastating impact against the Cowboys in the video to the right.
Given the spectacular production the Falcons have gotten from their star receiver using deceptive tactics and clever alignments, defensive coordinators around the NFL could have a tough time coming up with a plan for slowing down the explosive playmaker.
3) Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are a dangerous 1-2 punch.
The Falcons' running game was a huge question mark heading into the season, based on the youth and inexperience in the backfield. The Falcons were depending on a second-year pro (Freeman) and a rookie (Coleman) to spark a rushing attack that's failed to pack a punch since the heyday of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood several seasons ago.
Granted, the season is just three weeks old, but the youngsters have shown big-time potential with the ball in their hands. Freeman is a dynamic change-of-pace back with outstanding feet, vision and burst. He is at his best working the edges as a runner, as evidenced by his success against the Cowboys on an assortment of off-tackle runs. Although he only produced one explosive run (a 17-yard gain) in 30 carries, Freeman repeatedly found seams in the Cowboys' defense when defenders lost contain and discipline at the point of attack, racking up 141 yards. Most impressively, Freeman showed grit and toughness finding pay dirt on a pair of short touchdowns directed between the tackles, finishing with three total scores. With Freeman also adept at catching passes out of the backfield (12 receptions for 115 yards on the season), the Falcons can open up the playbook when the second-year pro is on the field.
Coleman is currently sidelined with a rib injury suffered in Week 2 against the Giants, but the rookie was starting to create buzz with his explosiveness and big-play potential on the perimeter. The 6-1, 210-pounder is an electric runner with ridiculous speed, acceleration and burst. He is comfortable working the edges, and he's shown better-than-anticipated grit running between the tackles. Coleman was finding his rhythm as a runner at the time of his injury, having put up 80 yards on 20 carries in the season opener. When he fully returns to health, Coleman could give the Falcons' running game the spark to finish as a top-10 unit.