Under former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan last season, the Falcons' offense took the NFL by storm with big play after big play, as Atlanta averaged 33.8 points, 415.8 total yards and 295.3 passing yards per game. This season, under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Atlanta's numbers are well below last year's: The team is posting 21.3 points, 372 total yards and 257.5 passing yards per game, while lurching out to a 4-4 start. And, in one of the more glaring changes statistically, the Falcons have scored 17 or fewer points in four of eight games this season. Last year's offense scored 17 or fewer points once.
So what's wrong?
The biggest reason for the drastic change is the loss of Shanahan, maybe one of the best offensive play-callers of this generation. Replacing Shanahan after he left to coach the San Francisco 49ers with Sarkisian wasn't a terrible move. It's just that whomever stepped in was going to have huge shoes to fill.
To right the ship, the Falcons must tie the run game in with the rest of the passing offense with more play-action schemes out of I-formation. That's where the team excelled tremendously last season. And while the Falcons are averaging 4.93 yards per carry when running out of I-formation (third in the league) this season, their usage of the formation has dropped off considerably. In 2016, it was employed on 38 percent of offensive snaps; this season, that figure is at 22 percent.
I-formation is predominantly a run and play-action set that moves the pocket and allows quarterbacks to take shots downfield. This is one of the schemes that I'm most familiar with after working with Gary Kubiak in 2006 as starting quarterback for the Houston Texans -- a year when Kyle Shanahan was the Texans' wide receivers coach. Their thought process is this: To get deep throws in the NFL, offenses can't just drop back and throw it downfield. Defenses are too good, and even your best players aren't going to run by defenders without some type of illusion. That's what play-action creates. But this year's Falcons are too often trying to find success through dropback sets, making things less complicated for opposing fronts at the line of scrimmage. This has allowed opponents to key in on what made the Falcons so special in 2016: big, downfield plays in the passing game.
Consequently, Matt Ryan's production on deep throws has dramatically decreased from his MVP season. Last season, Ryan completed 32 of the 64 passes he threw at least 20 yards, for 1,146 yards with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. This season, Ryan has completed six of 30 such passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Ryan's passer rating of 60.4 on deep passes this season ranks 25th in the NFL. Last year, he led the league in the category (135.4 passer rating).
Within play-action, I'd like to see Sarkisian get more creative by putting playmakers in different positions. Shanahan used his best players in unconventional situations that created mismatches. Sarkisian has good dropback pass concepts, but he generally lines Jones up on the outside, where he is consistently double- or triple-teamed. If he ran play-action, the safety might come up and allow Jones to be covered one-on-one down the field. And that's every quarterback's dream.
Now, I've got to give Sarkisian some credit, because I saw more play-action passes from the Falcons last week vs. Carolina. But they missed an easy shot at 14 points, as Ryan overthrew Jones on one play in the first quarter and Jones had a bad drop on another in the fourth. They weren't missing those big plays last year. In my opinion, it's because play-calling isn't as consistent, and the offense is still adjusting to new schemes. Even when the plays are there, they're missing.
If the Falcons are to avoid becoming the second straight Super Bowl runner-up to miss the playoffs, something must change. Sarkisian has access to everything Shanahan ran last year. Now he just has to add some of Shanahan's creativity to his own concepts. At this point, what do the Falcons have to lose?