Eagle Eye: What's The Key To Stopping Atlanta's Offense?

After looking at Atlanta’s defense and the challenges it will present on Thursday night, it’s time to change gears and study this Falcons offense. Despite finishing 13th in rushing yards per game a year ago, this unit wants to run the football. They have two very talented runners in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (two backs I projected as future starters coming out of college), and they beat you in a number of ways.

Freeman is an instinctive, decisive runner with an impressive blend of contact balance and wiggle to make defenders miss. Coleman is a bit more high-cut with long limbs and breakaway speed in the open field. They move both players around the formation (more about pre-snap motion later) as effective pass catchers and mismatches in space. It would be easy for me to say that Freeman is the "inside" runner and that Coleman is the "outside" guy, but that wouldn’t be true, as both have the versatility to do either in the structure of Atlanta’s offense, a scheme that features a heavy dose of outside zone.

ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY

In those shots above, Coleman picks up huge chunks of yardage on the ground from this preseason (Freeman rested during games this summer). This offensive line is a group that doesn’t wow you with its athleticism or the ability to just drive people off the ball, but it's a savvy group. Alex Mack is a five-time Pro Bowl selection at center and is probably the most talented player for them up front. Jake Matthews, a former top-10 pick, was just paid like a franchise tackle and provides stability for them on Matt Ryan’s blind side. Ryan Schraeder has improved a lot for them on the opposite side at right tackle, while left guard Andy Levitre has hit his stride that he previously had earlier in his career in Buffalo. One of the only position battles on this entire team during Training Camp took place at right guard where Brandon Fusco, a free agent from Minnesota, and Wes Schweitzer battled it out for the starting job (Fusco won).

From a personnel standpoint, this team loves to use multiple backs and tight ends at the same time. Whether it’s both Freeman and Coleman out on the field or just the use of a fullback, you’ll see plenty of 21-personnel sets, but also look for tight end-heavy packages as well with Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert, and free agent signee Logan Paulson. The Falcons like to run and pass out of these groupings.

I wasn’t as high on Hooper coming out of Stanford as others were, but he’s turned into a reliable pass catcher for the Falcons and a safety net for Ryan as a receiver at all three levels of the field. A smooth athlete who is reliable at the catch point, Hooper has also progressed as a blocker in both the run and pass game. Saubert was a guy I liked a couple of years ago out of a small school in Drake. He caught everything thrown his way in college and was hyper-competitive in every facet of his game. He’s fit in well with the Falcons and is ready to take the next step.

I mentioned that the Falcons love those 21-personnel sets with two backs and one tight end, and here are a few examples. Atlanta will line up in these groupings and put both of its receivers in "tight" or "reduced" splits, meaning that they line up inside the numbers tight to the formation. There are numerous benefits to this. This is a running look offensively, so the defense must respect that, typically with an eight-man box. This creates a single-high situation down the field. If the offense knows that you’re playing single-high, then they can call plays to attack that free safety. Another positive from these looks is that receivers have a TON of room to work down the field. We’ve seen Julio Jones running scot-free down the sideline so many times during his career because of these tight splits. The Falcons work it all in, and it’s a big part of what they do.

Another aspect of the Falcons' offense that seems subtle but is actually one of the best things they execute schematically is their use of pre-snap motion. For that, I’ll just use this piece to explain. Amy Campbell and I broke it down in our weekly segment, Eagle Eye in the Sky.

Julio Jones is one of the best in the NFL, there’s not much explanation needed there. He’s a freak show at the receiver position. Mohamed Sanu is a big, crafty veteran who lines up inside and outside and finds ways to win. Sanu will get matched up in the slot against Sidney Jones at times in this game, and I’m excited to see that matchup on film. The third receiver to watch is Calvin Ridley, the rookie first-round pick from Alabama.

Ridley isn’t the biggest receiver - that’s not his game - but he’s a crafty route runner with yards after catch ability who can create with the ball in his hands. He can make plays at all three levels of the field, and what I like most about him is that he can create separation on his own thanks to his quickness and technique. He was drafted by a team that will help give him quality separation as well. We see in those plays above the things they did with Ridley to move him around both inside and outside, and also to "hide" him in stacked sets and bunch formations. It wouldn’t shock me if he finished the year as the second-leading receiver on the Falcons' roster.

This is a talented Falcons offense that will present a number of challenges for the Eagles both with schemes and personnel groupings on Thursday night. I’m excited to see how they match up with the Eagles' defense at all three levels of the field.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated “Eagles Game Plan” show 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 Apple Podcasts.

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.

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