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Three Numbers That Help Explain Atlanta’s Offensive Success

The Falcons are among the best at using running backs and tight ends to create mismatches

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Falcons offense has annihilated nearly everyone this year, but just as impressive is the variety of ways that Atlanta can choose to attack. The Falcons don’t just throw the ball all over the field — they are one of the best teams in the NFL at using the running game and different formations to create matchup problems. Here are three stats about Atlanta’s offense that Robert Mays and Danny Kelly discussed on the latest Ringer NFL Show.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcription has been edited and condensed.

Twenty-seven Formations Were Used Before a Repeat Against Green Bay

Robert Mays: I looked at the Green Bay game. It took [the Falcons] 27 plays to use the same formation twice. That’s just what you’re looking at with this team: 27 plays in [about 20] minutes of game time [before using] the same formation again. That includes some motions and everything else, but both of these teams love coming out with 11 guys in the huddle, have the other team guess what it’s going to look like when they line up, and have that team be completely wrong.

Danny Kelly: Right. That is such a great point too because, as a defender, you’re taught to look for tendencies and habits in the other team. When they come out in a certain formation, down-and-distance, you’re supposed to connect those together and kind of know what they’re doing. But 27 straight different formations? Imagine having to memorize what that means in any given situation. There’s just so many permutations, and I think that’s why they’re just so impossible to predict.

22 Percent of Throws Are to Running Backs

Mays: 22.06 percent, that is the target share given to Atlanta’s running backs this year. It was the sixth highest in the league. Almost a quarter of Atlanta’s passes go to running backs, which is a ton! Just think about that.

What I’m looking at most with Atlanta, and how they use those guys, isn’t just that they throw it to them a lot. It’s the way they throw it to them, and the places they line up before they do. Going back and watching a lot of Patriots games over the last couple of days or so, you don’t see that many teams use running backs as wide receivers against the Patriots. I don’t know if that’s just because [Bill] Belichick is really good at snuffing that stuff out, [but] I didn’t see it pop up that often.

That’s what you’re going to see with Atlanta, so I feel like one of the things that Atlanta has to [ask itself] is: Do we want to use a lot of four-wide or empty sets where we motion [Devonta] Freeman and [Tevin] Coleman out, in order to get the Patriots in situations they’re not used to, while sacrificing our ability to run the ball? Atlanta wants to run to throw. They want to use play-action, all that kind of stuff. If you motion those guys out, if you use a lot of shotgun, you lose that ability to have that outside-zone look be the basis of your offense.

44 Percent of Atlanta’s Throws Come Without Three Receivers

Kelly: They want to run the ball, make New England’s two deep safeties creep up into the box, start anticipating the run and then throw it over their head. I saw that 44 percent of the times the Falcons threw the ball this year, that was in non-three-wide sets, so like two backs or two tight ends. Almost half the time they were throwing, it was from their “run sets.” I just think that tells the story of the Falcons offense a little bit, and the fact that they’re not like a three-wide, spread-’em-out-type team. I think they really like to get heavy, use their tight ends, use that fullback and set up play-action for either the run, or set up their play-action for deep shots.

Mays: I totally agree, but I bet that stat doesn’t account for how many times two tight ends were in the game and lined up in weird spots. I think that’s what you’re going to see a lot of. I feel like you’re going to see a lot of [Austin] Hooper lined up out wide, and Taylor Gabriel inside in the slot and trying to move guys around. That’s what they do extremely well. Obviously the Patriots are absurdly well-coached, they’re going to be ready for all of those things, but I’ll be curious to see how much Atlanta tries to line up with [Patrick] DiMarco, with Freeman, with maybe one or two tight ends, but then spread them out after they get there. That’s going to be something interesting to watch for me. I don’t know what the answer is. I honestly think we could see a lot of Coleman and Freeman in the game at the same time, in order to give yourself the matchup problems, while still giving you a chance to run the ball.

Kelly: It wouldn’t surprise me if they get kinda weird, and do new stuff that we haven’t really seen a lot. Coleman is a de facto receiver. We saw what he did against the Broncos. To me, that was his coming-out game. You’re like, “Whoa, this guy can do some shit in the passing game.” We already kind of knew it, but that was like, “Wow.”