The Eagles' defense will be faced with as tough a challenge as it will see all season long on Sunday against Matt Ryan and this Atlanta Falcons offense. This is the same scheme that the Falcons utilized to pick up nearly 400 yards of total offense in a 26-24 victory over the Eagles to kick off the 2015 season. Julio Jones caught nine passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns that night. The Falcons ran for 105 yards, one of their lowest outputs on the ground in the entire season.
Since then, the Atlanta rushing attack has fully blossomed in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's image. Like his father, Super Bowl winning head coach Mike, Kyle Shanahan's run game is based off of zone blocking, particularly the outside "stretch" scheme. The biggest benefactor has been third-year runner Devonta Freeman, who was one biggest surprises of the 2015 season. Freeman's combination of vision and lateral agility make him a perfect one-cut runner in this system, and his ability to make defenders miss in the open field once he reaches the second and third level makes him incredibly productive.
Shot 1 - Cornerstone of the #Falcons offense is the stretch run game with Freeman and Coleman. Shanahan's staple run play since Washington pic.twitter.com/ND42ciijr7 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
Here's a big run from Freeman against the Saints out of 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end on the field). Unlike the offense the Eagles faced last week in New York, this team utilizes a ton of different personnel groupings, with various combinations of two-back or multiple-tight end looks. Fullback Patrick DiMarco is a big part of what they do offensively, and here he blocks an edge defender of the Saints as Freeman cuts this back against the grain.
Atlanta's offensive line has improved as much as any in football since the start of the 2015 preseason. Left tackle Jake Matthews has come into his own as a solid starter on Ryan's blind side. Left guard Andy Levitre was acquired in a trade just before the start of last season and has settled in after a disappointing tour in Tennessee. The team signed star center Alex Mack in free agency this offseason. Veteran right guard Chris Chester is a solid presence and right tackle Ryan Schraeder has experienced huge improvements over the last 15 months of his career. In Shanahan's zone scheme, this group doesn't have to blow people off the ball, but they do use angles and leverage to their advantage to create creases up front for Freeman and the rest of the Atlanta ball carriers to work upfield for positive yardage.
Out of the 21 personnel package, the Falcons call a good amount of runs with DiMarco and a running back out of the backfield in a straight I-formation. However, the Falcons use a ton of different formations from that same personnel grouping. Freeman is a player who can be moved into the slot, as can third-string running back Terron Ward. The real chess piece for this offense is Tevin Coleman. The team's third-round pick out of Indiana in 2015 has explosive speed and he runs routes like a wide receiver, making him a really dynamic option in the passing game for Matt Ryan.
Shot 2 - They won't just run from 12 personnel. #Falcons do great job of getting RBs in space - masterful job of using Tevin Coleman vs DEN pic.twitter.com/3RlgxN6O7c — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
Here's two examples from Atlanta's upset victory in Denver where the Falcons utilized Coleman out in space in 21 personnel sets. Remember, when an offense puts that type of personnel grouping out on the field, the defense usually responds with its base look (meaning three or four linebackers are on the field). This plays right into the Falcons' hands. Both of these plays came in a pure Eempty set with no one in the backfield to spread the defense out. On the first pass, Coleman runs a quick in-breaking route underneath the tight end, a simple "rub" concept for the Falcons, and the former Hoosier sprints for a long gain down the left side after making a defender miss.
On the second play, Coleman moves into the slot again, except this time he beats a linebacker down the seam on a vertical route against a split safety look. This is an easy touchdown throw for Ryan downfield against Cover 2 Man, as the Falcons abuse a matchup with Coleman against a linebacker in space. The Eagles' linebackers have got to be ready to cover in this game, whether or not he suits up (he has missed the last few games due to injury and at this stage is questionable for this Sunday).
Just because the Falcons motion Freeman or Coleman out of the backfield in these empty sets it does not mean that they are the primary read on the play. The Falcons expect a defense to respond a certain way, and then attack where you are most vulnerable. Here against Green Bay, the Falcons learned from film study that in this down-and-distance situation, the Packers were likely going to be in a certain type of coverage. The Falcons expect the cornerback to follow Freeman, which would leave a linebacker on Mohamed Sanu in the slot. Even though it's "just" zone defense, this is a mismatch in space for the Falcons, and one they'll accept every time. Ryan hits Sanu for an easy first down as he beats linebacker Jake Ryan on a quick out route from the slot.
When Shanahan was in Washington with his father, they had a young quarterback named Robert Griffin III and a young running back in Alfred Morris. This team came firing out of the gates offensively, and really got into a groove with Griffin throwing down the field. In fact, the scheme's success was a part of my first-ever Eagle Eye in the Sky All-22 piece on this site. What made the scheme so effective? Washington forced teams to load the box against the run because of its rushing attack, manipulating you to play single-high coverage in the secondary. With that in mind, Washington would call pass concepts that specifically attacked those coverages, namely the "Post-Cross" concept with a deep post route and a crossing route underneath. It was incredibly effective for them. That same theme carries over to this Falcons offense.
Shot 4 - ATL loves to establish the run, find out what coverage you're in, then run shots off that. 'Mills' play a perfect 'Quarters' killer pic.twitter.com/OqdAtV7M9y — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
The Falcons are in 12 personnel against the Green Bay Packers, with one back, two tight ends and two receivers. This is going to be a run play to the left, and the Falcons see that the Packers are in quarters coverage with four defensive backs splitting the field into four equal parts across the field. This is something they expected going into the game. So how did Atlanta respond? Later in the game, they come out in 12 personnel again, except this isn't going to be a run play. This is a quarters-beater known as the Pin or Mills concept, a deep post route with a dig underneath it from the same side of the field.
The idea of this play, like any pass concept that attacks a zone coverage, is to "high-low" a defender. In this case the target is the playside safety. The dig route from the No. 2 receiver, in this case a tight end, holds the safety's eyes and at times will cause him to move up and defend that route, leaving his spot in the middle of the field. The post route, initially defended by the cornerback outside, will be wide open, as the corner passes him off believing he has a safety in the middle of the field. This play goes for a long touchdown to Taylor Gabriel, who played for Shanahan in Cleveland and has now developed into a field stretcher in this Atlanta offense.
So we've seen the 12 personnel and 21 personnel packages as well. The Falcons don't stop there though, as they're also one of the best 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends) teams in the entire NFL. Like the Eagles, the Falcons love to work in all three of their tight ends and are willing to both run and throw the football from those groupings out of a number of formations.
Shot 5 - Matt Ryan's numbers with 3 TEs on the field: 24/31 (77.4%), 5 TDs, 158.3 QB Rating. 19 1st downs. 5 plays of 25+ yds including this pic.twitter.com/g9C30dVHvn — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
On this play against the Seahawks, Atlanta puts Ryan in an empty set with one receiver to the left and a running back lined up wide to the right. Seattle is in its base defense with four down linemen and three linebackers, and they are not prepared to defend this Four Verticals pass concept from a personnel standpoint. The Falcons send all three of those tight ends vertically down the field, drawing cornerback Richard Sherman away from that area with a shallow crossing route from Julio Jones. This results in a long touchdown to tight end Levine Toilolo, who was wide open down the left sideline.
Just how effective is Ryan in these passing situations with three tight ends on the field? On the season, he's a whopping 24-of-31 (77.4 percent) with five touchdowns and no interceptions with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. He's thrown five passes of 25 yards or more out of these sets with a combined 19 first downs. They're almost 50/50 when it comes to their run/pass ratio with three tight ends on the field (33 runs to 31 passes). Those numbers are simply extraordinary, and speak to the efficiency and scheme diversity of this offense right now.
This brings me to the ultimate threat in this Atlanta passing game, wide receiver Julio Jones, one of the most dynamic athletes in the league regardless of position. At 6-3, 225 pounds with 4.40 speed, Jones is a freak of nature with his ability to both get vertical and win one on one, but also work in the middle of the field at every level. His physicality with and without the ball make him an extremely tough cover, and in a scheme like Shanahan's he is helped by a lot of favorable situations as well. It's a match made in heaven when you have a quarterback in Matt Ryan who is not afraid to let it rip downfield and will let Jones go make a play for the football.
One of the things Atlanta loves to do with Jones is line him up tight to the formation in what we call a "tight split." This is something I broke down heavily last year leading up to that Week 1 matchup (more on that here), but long story short, putting him close to the formation is the equivalent of lining him up in the slot, except with more room to run since no receiver is lined up outside of him. With a two-way go out of this tight split, cornerbacks have a tough time pressing Jones at the line of scrimmage because he can run routes effectively inside or outside. There's no sideline to use as help when you're that close to the ball. With his strength and ability to run through contact it becomes even more difficult, especially when they put him in motion, which brings me to the next play.
Shot 6 - Ryan has a QB Rating of 135.4 on passes thrown 20+ yd downfield (17/34 with 6 TDs). Great anticipation throw to Jones here #Falcons pic.twitter.com/whYwGlqJom — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
This play is a ridiculous example of the chemistry between Ryan and Jones. Atlanta brings Jones in motion from left to right, and he lines up with a tight split inside the numbers. You see the cornerback in off coverage, and Jones immediately attacks downfield with his vertical stem. This eats up the defender's cushion before he broke back toward the sideline. Look at the anticipation from Ryan here, as he pulls the trigger on this throw steps before Jones even gets to the top of his stem. This perfect throw is complete for a first down, and it came from Jones in a tight split on a vertical route.
On this play against Carolina, the issues with a tight split when it comes to Jones are easy to see. This is a poor rep from the cornerback on that side in Carolina's Cover 3 scheme, but you can see how Jones has all kinds of room outside the numbers to avoid the press coverage and get downfield.
Shot 8 - Great design by Shanahan. Julio on the shallow runs through a wide open void in underneath coverage for an easy TD #Falcons #Eagles pic.twitter.com/hxmll387dv — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
This isn't a tight split from Jones on this play, but you can see the type of scenarios that Shanahan is able to put him in to get him the ball in space. With two vertical routes to the right to clear out the coverage and a quick route to the flat from the tight end, Jones runs a shallow crossing route from the left, directly through a wide open running lane. Ryan hits Jones on the run for a touchdown here, and you can see that when Jones gets the football in his hands on the move he's nearly impossible to bring down to the ground. The Falcons love to get the ball in Jones' hands quickly because of his ability to get yards after the catch.
Shot 9 - Doubling Julio? Better tighten up everywhere else. Sanu leads ATL in targets on 3rd down & in red zone. TD screen to Freeman here pic.twitter.com/kPxqjKxKlK — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
If defenses decide to double-team Jones, which is pretty common, you have to be sure to complete your assignments across the formation. With players like Sanu, Freeman and Coleman as well as the trio of tight ends, Ryan will attack you in a number of ways. Here against Green Bay, the Packers call a designated double team on Jones in the red zone, pulling a defender away from the middle of the field. This works just fine for Ryan and Shanahan, as they call a screen to the opposite side to Freeman, who takes this pass 5 yards for a touchdown. Teams' willingness to double-team Jones in key situations is likely why Sanu, who was signed in free agency this offseason, leads the Falcons in targets both on third down (10 catches on 16 targets) and in the red zone (three touchdowns on 10 targets).
Shot 10 - #Falcons in a nutshell. Varied personnel groups. Run-game focus. Must defend Julio, but they have other weapons that beat you too. pic.twitter.com/MMWJOOvc9L — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 10, 2016
This is the last clip I'll show, and it perfectly summates the threats you have to deal with in this Atlanta offense. You have 13 personnel on the field, and this is a deep shot play off of run-action. Ryan is lined up under center (where he has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns, he's the best under-center passer in the league), and Jones runs a deep post route downfield. Look at how Julio pulls coverage with him, as rookie tight end Austin Hooper leaks into the left side of the field for a throwback play downfield on this 42-yard touchdown throw.
The Falcons attack defenses in a multitude of ways, and the Eagles will have to bring their A game against one of the league's most prolific offensive attacks.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.