Over the last two weeks, I’ve watched a ton of tape of the Atlanta Falcons. Their offense is not producing at the rate it was a year ago, but it’s still a very, very tough unit to match up against.
Matt Ryan is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Devonta Freeman is one of the top running backs in the league, and there are analysts who believe his backup, Tevin Coleman, is just as talented (if not more). Julio Jones strikes more fear into the heart of defenses than any receiver in football. It’s a fun group to watch on film, and a not-so-fun group to draw up a game plan for as a defense.
When you watch Atlanta’s offense, one thing is absolutely clear. Even with Ryan, Jones, and other pass catchers like Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Taylor Gabriel, and Austin Hooper, this is a team that wants to run the football with its two talented backs.
Atlanta finished the season 13th in the league with 115.4 yards per game on the ground, but don’t let that number fool you. At a clip of 4.3 yards per carry (eighth best in the league), Atlanta can pound the football. The Falcons ran it 39 times against the Los Angeles Rams last week in a road game where they wanted to keep the opposing offense off the field and control the clock, and I think they’ll try to do the same thing on Saturday night.
From a physical standpoint, Freeman is special because of a couple of very specific traits. The former fourth-round pick out of Florida State is exceptionally decisive downhill in their zone run schemes. He wastes very little movement and gets downhill quickly, picking his way through traffic for big plays on the ground. His contact balance and his ability to execute athletic maneuvers at top speed without breaking stride give him the opportunity to create his own yards as well.
Coleman, who has his fair share of starts in the league when Freeman has missed time, is a similar type of runner. He’s probably not AS decisive as Freeman, but he’s got more explosiveness in a straight line and offers even more versatility as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Schematically, there are two runs the Eagles are going to see a lot of on Saturday night - Outside Zone and Toss Crack.
Note that there is audio commentary for each of the video clips.
Shot 1 - To stop this #Falcons offense, you have to stop the run, and their staple run play is the Outside Zone. RB and OL are in-sync on these plays. #Eagles defense has to be gap-sound in the run game, something they've done all season long. Devonta Freeman is one of the best pic.twitter.com/0Yv2ybULKm — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 11, 2018
Show 2 - The other staple of the #Falcons in the run game is the 'Pin Pull' / 'Crack Toss' concept. They run it in a lot of different ways, but they love getting both Freeman and Coleman out on the perimeter on this play. Sanu is one of the best blocking WRs in football #Eagles pic.twitter.com/cWSuou1nOM — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 11, 2018
Both of these play concepts showcase the athleticism of the Falcons' offensive line paired with the vision, decisiveness, and explosiveness of the backs. There will be a few other run plays mixed into the Atlanta game plan, but keep an eye out for both of these plays.
From an Eagles standpoint, they must continue to be gap-sound against the run. Everyone needs to stay in their gap and do their job. The point of both of these plays is to try and get defenders, namely at the second level, to try and overpursue and either run over the top or go through the back door to the ballcarrier. The Eagles' defense can’t let that happen on Saturday afternoon.
Like every team in the NFL, the Falcons incorporate some form of the "run pass option" (RPO) attack into their game plan on a weekly basis.
Show 3 - An RPO from the #Falcons last week vs LA. Great job by Matt Ryan / Julio here, but most impressed by C Alex Mack here on the blitzing DB. Whew. pic.twitter.com/qF47pN1coS — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 11, 2018
Again, all Ryan is doing here is reading the defense and seeing if the way they line up is more conducive to the Falcons running or throwing the football. Here, he declines to hand the ball off to Freeman, instead choosing to throw it to Jones on a quick slant. The most impressive part of this play, however, was the block by Alex Mack. The veteran center, who has been one of the catalysts of this offense since his arrival in the 2016 offseason, delivers a devastating block on a blitzing defensive back just before the throw. Mack is one of the best centers in the league, helping to create a fun matchup this weekend against Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan on the inside.
The running backs’ impact isn’t only felt in the ground game, however, because both Freeman and Coleman are a big part of the Falcons' passing attack. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian implements a lot of the play concepts that worked for the Falcons a year ago, and it has paid dividends.
Shot 4 - The #Falcons LOVE to use their RBs in the passing game. Quick game, screens, vertical shots -- it doesn't matter. Both Freeman and Coleman are threats as receivers. Love some of the designs in these plays. pic.twitter.com/CEsjcDXdEW — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 11, 2018
Whether it’s in the screen game, in the quick game, or on vertical routes down the field, the Falcons' running backs are going to be huge factors in the passing game on Saturday night. The Eagles' linebackers will have to be on high alert in this game.
One of the big storylines surrounding this Falcons' offense this season has been the lack of big plays. It’s a valid discussion to have because there has been a significant drop-off.
In 2016, Matt Ryan posted a quarterback rating of 133.1 with nine touchdowns and no interceptions on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield. This year, those numbers sunk to an 86.0 rating with four touchdowns and a pick. They had 69 pass plays that went for over 20 yards last year, a number that fell to 55 this year. That last number, however, was still good for ninth in the league. This offense can still push the ball down the field, and with Jones running at a safety at full speed, it’s a terror for a secondary to worry about.
Shot 5 - Not as prevalent as years past, but the #Falcons will still go max protection and run Julio Jones down the field on two-man route concepts to attack safeties. With how much they run the ball, these concepts are extremely effective pic.twitter.com/evbsfXlt8T — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 11, 2018
The Falcons like to use max protection (with seven or eight blockers) on two-man route concepts with Jones running at safeties in the middle of the field. The Eagles have to be wary for plays like this.
Shot 6 - Throughout their careers together, regardless of who has been calling shots for #Falcons, the fade routes to Julio Jones from Matt Ryan with Julio lined up with nasty splits or in the slot are killers. So much room outside numbers for Ryan to deliver the football pic.twitter.com/pfO8v83iDH — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 11, 2018
One of the other things the Falcons have done with Jones, and this goes back a long ways, is running him vertically down the field from a tight split. Whether he’s lined up inside the numbers or in the slot with other players outside of him, putting Jones inside the numbers creates a ton of room to the sideline for Ryan to place a vertical touch throw. Jones, who is one of the most physically imposing receivers in football, also happens to be one of the best at tracking those deep throws. It’s a match made in heaven, as he’s given room along the sideline to work and the quarterback can throw it up and let him go get it.
In 2016, the Eagles didn’t do anything out of the ordinary in their efforts to cover Jones, who was on the field for 32 pass attempts by Ryan (catching 10 passes for 135 yards). On half of those snaps, the Eagles played man coverage against Jones with no safety help. On only one snap did the Eagles use a "designated double team" in coverage on the All-Pro wideout. The strategy worked, as Jones was held to just 38 yards after the catch in the game (3.8 per reception). Going into the week, he was averaging 6.1 yards after the catch per reception. The Eagles nearly cut that number in half, getting him to the ground almost immediately more often than not. Will they do the same thing this week? Or will they decide to do some of the things they’ve done in the past to receivers like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.? That will be one of the things I’m most interested to see come Sunday morning after the game.
Shot 7 - The best thing the #Falcons do in the passing game is use pre-snap motion along with bunch sets to dictate matchups and diagnose coverage for Matt Ryan to pick you apart. One of the reasons why they were the #1 3rd down offense at the end of the regular season #Eagles pic.twitter.com/ObYUE48jkE — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 11, 2018
One area of the Falcons' passing game that I think is what sets it apart from a lot of the league is the ability to use motions, shifts, and receiver distribution and location to diagnose coverages before the snap. By moving eligible receivers all around the formation, Ryan gets clues as to whether the opponent is in man or zone coverage. From there, Ryan uses his memory and recall after hours of study to guess what specific kind of man or zone it is. With this knowledge, Ryan will know which receivers should be open on any given play. Here are some examples of all of that at work. I think plays like these are one of the big reasons why the Falcons led the NFL in third-down offense in 2017 (44.7 percent conversion).
The Eagles will face a big challenge in the Divisional Round. The Falcons have plenty of weapons - from a star quarterback, a dynamic receiving corps, and a punishing rushing attack. They protect the quarterback well as Ryan has only been sacked 24 times this fall. Atlanta has a scheme that puts those players in position to score on any possession. The defense will need its A game at Lincoln Financial Field.
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.