Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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FALCONS OFFENSE: Why this year is different than 2015
Riding a strong defense has been the formula for success in the NFC of late, but the 2-1 Atlanta Falcons could flip the script by relying on a high-powered offense to spark a playoff run this season.
Dan Quinn's "Dirty Birds" are torching the NFL with an offense that features a red-hot quarterback, a dynamic 1-2 punch at running back and a premier WR1 who is just about unstoppable on the perimeter. Plus, the Falcons have assembled an offensive line that's beginning to own the line of scrimmage while providing plenty of protection for Matt Ryan to direct an explosive aerial attack that's creating problems for defensive coordinators.
Skeptics might doubt the Falcons' nice start after watching the team jump out to 5-0 in 2015 before stumbling to the finish line with a .500 record. But this year is different. The Falcons are a more balanced unit, and their diverse attack makes them a nightmare matchup, particularly when they are taking care of the ball.
The Falconslead the NFL in scoring offense (34.7 points per game) and total offense (448.0 yards per game) while also ranking within the top five in rushing offense (136.0 yards per game) and passing offense (312.0 yards per game). The attack is clicking on all cylinders and maximizing the talents of every playmaker in the lineup.
Starting with the quarterback, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has tweaked his scheme to help Ryan regain his Pro Bowl form. The wily play designer has constructed a complementary misdirection passing game that perfectly matches the zone-based running concepts that have become a staple of the Falcons' offensive attack. From the stretch-bootleg passes out of various run-heavy sets to traditional play-action concepts with intermediate and vertical routes, Ryan has been thriving in a scheme built on deception and backfield illusions.
The ninth-year pro is completing 70.9 percent of his passes with a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 119.0 this season. He has averaged 323.3 passing yards per game and extended his streak of passing performances of 200-plus yards to 42 games. Those numbers are impressive, but his ability to avoid the big mistake is what has struck me the most. Ryan only has one turnover through three games after finishing with 21 giveaways in 2015. Part of his success in avoiding turnovers can be attributed to the Falcons' deep and talented pass-catching corps (tight ends included) and a diverse call sheet.
Last season, Julio Jones accounted for 31.3 percent of the Falcons' scrimmage yards. This season, the team is using more of its weaponry in the passing game. Nine players have caught at least four passes to date, and five playmakers enter Week 4 with nine or more receptions on the books. Thus, opponents are forced to defend the entire field, rather than focusing exclusively on shutting down Atlanta's electric WR1.
Looking at the numbers, the tactic is working out well, with Ryan posting a 121.1 passer rating when targeting all other receivers compared to an 116.3 rating when throwing to Jones this season. This is a significant improvement over the 81.0 rating he posted in 2015 when he targeted any receiver outside of Jones (compared to a 105.0 rating when throwing to his perennial Pro Bowl wideout).
This brings me back to Ryan, and how Shanahan has adapted his system to suit his quarterback's talents. The Falcons are running more no-huddle offense to create quicker tempo between plays and slow down the opposing pass rush. Ryan is given total control at the line and allowed to call his favorite plays. Still, Atlanta will jump in and out of the no-huddle based on the situation. For instance, the Falcons will hurry to the line following an "explosive" play (one covering more than 25 yards) to take advantage of stunned defenses reeling from an emotional turn of events. In addition, they will repeat successful plays (running plays) without a huddle to attack the defense before the defensive coordinator can make a quick adjustment.
With the experienced Ryan adept at directing a no-huddle offense, the Falcons' selective use of "tempo" has sparked an offense that's loaded with dangerous playmakers.
The Falcons' two-headed backfield monster has emerged as one of the most feared position groups in football. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are part of a unit that's combined for the most scrimmage yards (625) by running backs this season (Tennessee ranks second with 529). Unlike most tandems, in which the runners boast complementary skill sets, the Falcons' duo has similar traits (speed, elusiveness, burst, running style and receiving skills) with the ball in their hands. This allows Shanahan to simply call plays without worrying about which runner is on the field or which formation or personnel package is used on a given play. This tactic not only prevents defensive coordinators from honing in on tendencies, but it enables the team to evenly split the touches between the backs.
For Freeman, the move to a platoon system is good for business. Yes, he earned Pro Bowl honors a season ago after gaining 1,634 yards from scrimmage, but he also appeared to wear down as the year went on. The third-year pro entered Week 3 with a streak of 10 straight games with fewer than 100 rushing yards while serving as the Falcons' primary ball carrier. As one half of the Falcons' new tandem, he is leading the NFL in yards per attempt (6.3) this season while displaying the speed, burst and wiggle that made him an unstoppable force during the first half of the 2015 campaign. Check out this 48-yard dash against the Saints in Week 3 (a game in which he rumbled for 152 yards on just 14 carries):
Not to be outdone, Coleman has settled in nicely as the second weapon in the backfield. He does most of his damage as a receiver on screens and swings, exhibiting soft hands and slippery open-field running skills on the perimeter. Coleman gets from zero to 60 in a hurry. Most importantly, he is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
In the play below, from Atlanta's Week 1 showdown with the Buccaneers, Coleman showcases his big-play ability and running skills on a 47-yard pass play. The Falcons are aligned in a split-back formation from the shotgun, with the shifty back set to the weak side. He slips out of the backfield on a rail route behind the snag route by Jones. With the Buccaneers in a blitz and playing man coverage behind the pressure, the free release allows Coleman to catch the ball on the run and jet down the sideline for a big gain:
For years, we watched Atlanta rise above the competition in the NFC South behind an electric offense that lit up scoreboards like a pinball machine. After faltering down the stretch in 2015 with an offense that essentially became a one-man show, the Falcons have had success with a spread-the-wealth approach that could make them a tough out down the stretch of the regular season -- and beyond.