Three weeks into the season, the Atlanta Falcons were leading the NFL in points, total yards, and yards per play. They’d produced like the league’s best offense, but there was one big asterisk tacked on to the end of that statement. They’d racked up all those yards and all those points against the Downy-soft Buccaneers, Raiders, and Saints defenses, which ranked 21st, 29th, and 30th, respectively, going into Week 4, per Football Outsiders DVOA.
Well, if we couldn’t say the Falcons offense was for real after three games, we can say it now. They thrashed the Panthers 48–33 on Sunday, as Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards and four touchdowns, Julio Jones reeled in 12 catches for 300 yards, and the offense put up 571 yards of offense against the previously sixth-ranked Carolina defense. It took a season-long reboot in 2015, but Ryan is back, and the Falcons have the best offense in the NFL at the quarter point of 2016.
After going 13–3 in 2012, the Falcons haven’t posted a winning season since. That year, they blew a 17-point lead in the NFC championship to the 49ers, and what followed was a quick descent into mediocrity. The Falcons won just four games in 2013, then after a 6–10 finish in 2014, general manager Thomas Dimitroff cleaned house. He fired his head coach of six years, Mike Smith, along with much of Smith’s staff, and in came former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who soon named Kyle Shanahan as the new offensive coordinator. Shanahan has never been far from controversy, whether it was regarding the benching of Donovan McNabb in Washington, Robert Griffin III’s rise and fall, or the coach’s decision to resign in Cleveland because of Johnny Manziel. But his history of top-10 offenses (2008 and 2009 in Houston; 2012 and 2013 in Washington) apparently trumped all that for Quinn, who wanted Shanahan’s system in Atlanta.
So, after playing in essentially the same offense under Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter from 2008 to 2014, Ryan found himself in a new system that focuses less on the pocket-passing vertical game he’d been used to and more on staying balanced with the run and throwing a lot off of play-action bootlegs. The growing pains for Ryan in Shanahan’s scheme were clear, as Atlanta finished last season ranked 22nd in points scored and 23rd in offensive DVOA. Ryan threw 21 touchdown passes (the lowest since his rookie season) to 16 picks (one off a career high). He struggled throwing on the move and made way too many inexplicable decisions with the football, particularly on his four red zone interceptions, which were second most in the NFL). Shanahan’s year was just as dreary. In addition to the offense’s struggles, his decision to move away from Roddy White in the passing game became a controversy when the fan favorite complained about being used primarily as a blocker. After Atlanta released White at the end of the year, he blamed Shanahan for the team’s troubles, accusing the offensive coordinator of mismanaging late-game situations and costing the Falcons wins.
Four games into 2016, all of that drama is in the rearview. The Falcons have scored an NFL-high 152 points, Ryan just broke the franchise record for passing yards in a game, and his stat line one-fourth of the way through the year looks like this: 101-for-140 passing (72.1 percent) for 1,473 yards at 10.5 yards per attempt, along with 11 touchdowns to two interceptions and a 126.3 passer rating. He’s hit his rhythm in the quick-strike short passing game, and he’s more comfortable than ever on the bootleg-action rollout passes that Shanahan’s offense prioritizes.
Of course, it helps to have a dominant receiver like Jones who can go off for three football fields’ worth of yards in a single afternoon. Jones is basically unguardable in one-on-one situations. He’s dangerous down the sideline. And he’s the perfect target — with size, physicality, and breakaway speed — on the post and drag routes that Atlanta calls up on on play-action passes.
But it’s not just Jones who’s making this offense tick. With a more robust supporting cast, Shanahan and Ryan don’t have to force-feed their star like they did last year, and that makes them much tougher to game plan for. Jones saw 33 percent of the Falcons’ targets in 2015, and four games in, that number has dropped to 25 percent. Against the Panthers, nine Falcons caught passes: Taylor Gabriel (three for 49 yards), Tevin Coleman (three for 14), Aldrick Robinson (two for 48 and a TD), Mohamed Sanu (two for 22), Devonta Freeman (two for 7), Austin Hooper (one for 42 and a TD), and Patrick DiMarco (one for 18).
“You’ve got other guys who have made plays,” Shanahan said before Atlanta’s win last week over the Saints. “It makes it easier. You don’t have to force it into tough looks. You can go where the coverage tells you. And when you do that, it kind of balances the field out and makes [Jones’s] catches a little more valuable.”
In that 45–32 win over New Orleans, Jones was targeted just seven times and caught one ball, but his teammates picked up the slack as eight different players caught passes. In Week 2’s 35–28 win against the Raiders, nine players caught a pass, and in Week 1’s loss to the Bucs, eight players caught a pass. Spreading targets around so liberally makes it hard for opponents to zero in on Atlanta’s tendencies, and when Jones does get the ball, there’s room for him to go off like he did against Carolina.
In addition to the well-balanced passing attack, Shanahan’s wide-zone run game has played a big part in Atlanta’s offensive explosions. Free-agency addition Alex Mack at center is paying off. After finishing last season with 1,606 yards (20th), 3.8 yards per attempt (26th), and 13 rushing touchdowns (tied for 12th), they’re currently sixth in yards (498), third in yards per carry (4.7), and fourth in touchdowns (five). Coleman has emerged in his second season and looks much more comfortable running in Atlanta’s scheme than he did as a rookie, and the former Indiana Hoosier, who was used primarily as a backup or a passing-down option in his first year, gives the Falcons another decisive, downhill physical runner to pair with Freeman. Sharing the workload should keep both fresh as the season goes on.
Atlanta ran 25 times for 90 yards and a touchdown against Carolina’s stout front, and the Falcons’ effectiveness on the ground not only takes some of the pressure off of Ryan’s arm to carry the offense, but it helps in the play-action bootleg game. This was clear when Ryan hit Hooper deep down the left sideline for a 42-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The Panthers bit hard on a play-action run fake, and as they scrambled to adjust to the throw, they forgot to defend Hooper, who leaked out from the formation on the back side of the play.
If this play looks familiar, it’s because the Falcons did almost the exact same thing in Week 2 against the Raiders.
The Falcons also owe some of their early-season success on offense to Shanahan’s aggressive play calling. Jones’s 75-yard touchdown run-and-catch is the perfect example. After the Panthers had erased the Falcons’ 34–10 fourth-quarter lead with a pair of touchdowns to make it an eight-point game with 3:58 remaining, the Conservative Coach’s Playbook called for three straight runs that would bleed the clock and force Carolina to use up its three timeouts. Instead, on the first play of their subsequent drive — with the Panthers crowding the line of scrimmage with eight defenders, looking to stuff the run and get the offense the ball back — Shanahan and Ryan dialed up a quick slant to Jones, who took the pass and ran 75 yards past Carolina’s only three deep defenders for the game-clinching score.
Ryan is back to making the types of precision throws under pressure that earned him the “Matty Ice” nickname and sent him to three Pro Bowls. We didn’t see this guy last season, but with an improved run game and a more varied attack featuring all of Atlanta’s offensive weapons, the Falcons have emerged as the clear favorites in the NFC South. At 3–1, they’re already two full games ahead of every other team in their division, as the Panthers, Bucs, and Saints each sit at 1–3. The defense is giving up an average of 419 yards a game (29th in the NFL) and has surrendered 31 points per game (28th), and that doesn’t give the offense much margin for error, but with Ryan in full control of the playbook and Jones in full flight, the Falcons still have a chance to win every week.