If you wrote the Falcons off after their disastrous 1-4 start, you probably weren’t alone. With narrow losses to the Eagles, Saints, and Bengals and a blowout defeat at the hands of the Steelers, a shell-shocked Atlanta team went into Week 6 in last place in the NFC South.
But over the past month, the Falcons have overcome their injury-decimated defense, dug themselves out of the cellar, and gotten back to .500 on the back of their high-flying offense. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who’s posting MVP-caliber numbers, and narrative-busting play-caller Steve Sarkisian, who’s solved the team’s red zone woes, the Falcons offense is quietly humming along at a clip that comes close to its incredible 2016 performance. In a season that’s been dominated by the NFL’s most unstoppable offenses, the Falcons have put together a juggernaut of their own—and that group makes this team a dark horse playoff contender in the season’s stretch run.
The nucleus of the team’s passing game hasn’t changed all that much since its record-breaking campaign under then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2016. Ryan is still under center, Julio Jones is still unguardable, Mohamed Sanu is still an effective possession receiver, and Tevin Coleman is still a dangerous pass catcher out of the backfield. But there’s plenty of moving parts in any scheme, and it took Sarkisian a while to fully implement his playbook. Sark took over as the team’s play-caller last year and the Falcons offense was more than respectable, finishing tied for third in yards per play (5.9), eighth in total yards (364.8 per game), and ninth in turnovers (18). But major struggles in the red zone meant Sark’s unit dropped precipitously in what’s ultimately the most important metric: They ended the year 15th in points scored (22.1 per game) after finishing first in the same category (33.8 per game) the year prior.
The team stuck with its embattled coordinator but got him a little bit of help. Rookie first-round receiver Calvin Ridley (who has 33 catches and 463 yards with a team-high seven touchdowns) has added a yards-after-the-catch element to the air attack that the team badly missed last year, and the former Alabama star has kept the chains moving and, more importantly, made more plays in the red zone. Sark’s play sequencing is more refined this year than last, and he’s done an excellent job of using the team’s complementary players, mixing in more counters and misdirection plays into the slowly improving run game while utilizing an effective play-action passing attack off that. He’s mixed tempo and done well at attacking all levels and areas of the field, getting guys like tight end Austin Hooper and deep threat Marvin Hall involved when Jones, Sanu, or Ridley are covered up.
As Sarkisian said this week, the difference we’ve seen in his second season at the helm comes down to “an overall comfort level—with our players, our style of play—to put our players in the best position to be successful.”
The Falcons’ offensive performance this year has been overshadowed by the record-setting numbers of the Chiefs, Rams, and Saints, but it’s been impressive nonetheless. For context, while Atlanta has a little ground to make up in the scoring column, with this pace, the Falcons aren’t far off from matching their 2016 totals in yards per game, yards per play, turnovers, first downs, and drive success rate (percentage of drives that end in a score).
Falcons Offense in 2016 and 2018
|2018 (on pace)||28.5||412.3||6.5||10||366||47.6|
Perhaps more surprisingly, Ryan’s pace this year as a passer nearly lines up with his MVP campaign in 2016.
Matt Ryan in 2016 and 2018
|2018 (on pace)||38||6||6.3||1.0||8.9||335.6||115.1||44||6.8|
Those statistical rebounds come from a number of factors. For starters, Sarkisian has run more play-action this season, and it’s paid off in the form of more explosive plays and touchdown bombs. Last year, Ryan was a middle-of-the-road thrower on those snaps, passing off play-action on 22.8 percent of his dropbacks (13th), per Pro Football Focus, for 1,055 yards (ninth), five touchdowns (tied for 16th), two interceptions, and 98.3 passer rating (15th). This year, Ryan is running play-action on 28.4 percent of snaps (sixth) and has already racked up 864 yards (third), six touchdowns (tied for fourth), and one pick for a 116.3 passer rating (fourth) in just eight games. The Falcons have gone to one particular play-action look a few times this year with great success, mixing a few of my favorite things: the play-fake, a slice block by the tight end, orbit motion in the backfield, and the deep bomb. All that deception wreaks havoc on second- and third-level defenders, who have to take only one step in the wrong direction for the Falcons to jump. They got the Buccaneers with this play in Week 6:
And then fooled the Giants with the same type of look on back-to-back plays in Week 7.
The effectiveness of the play-action passing game has helped Sark in the red zone, too. After finishing 23rd in red zone touchdown rate last year (49.2 percent), the Falcons rank seventh in 2018—punching it in on 69.2 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Against Tampa Bay, this play-action fake from the 9-yard line used the entire team to generate deception: The offensive line blocked to the right, the running back faked the dive, and even Hooper came out of his stance at the snap pretending to run block. The result? The defense reeled: First, they stepped forward in near unison, then, realizing it was a fake, retreated quickly to protect against the pass. When the defensive back to Hooper’s side backed off, Ryan dumped it off to his athletic tight end and let him do the rest.
Of course, Ryan’s been effective in the non-play-action passing game as well, where he’s racked up 1,821 yards (fifth), 13 touchdowns (tied for seventh), and two picks at 8.5 yards per attempt and a 114.6 passer rating (both second), per PFF. The 33-year-old signal-caller shook off a noodle-armed Week 1 performance and has thrown with velocity and pinpoint accuracy in his last seven games. Credit too goes to Sarkisian, who’s drawn up schemes to get Ryan’s best players advantageous matchups.
Last week against Washington, Atlanta often spread the field when it got man coverage on the outside; on this play, they sent Hooper to the right wing and Coleman to the left. That left receivers Ridley and Jones lined up tight in both slots, drawing coverage from linebackers Mason Foster and Zach Brown. Those are both what you’d call mismatches: Julio ran up the numbers, got behind Brown, and caught Ryan’s lofted pass for a big gain.
Atlanta loves to take advantage of linebackers in coverage with Coleman, too, whose speed to the outside is too much for slower-footed defenders.
And they’ve mixed in some effective screens, which target smaller defenders in space. Check out the guard-center-guard combo here blocking in space against Washington, springing Coleman for a 39-yard touchdown.
Later in that game, the Falcons went to a left tackle/left guard combo as downfield blockers. Cornerback Josh Norman likely didn’t enjoy this matchup with Jake Matthews.
Sark has used simple schemes—drawing on motions and formations—to first identify coverage and then exploit the matchups he wants. That’s been especially true on the so-called money down, where Atlanta’s been one of the best in the league: second in third-down conversions per game (7.0) and first in third-down conversion rate. In the team’s dominant 38-14 win over Washington on Sunday, the Falcons went 10-of-13 on third down, converting their first eight in a row. The motion or formation would typically betray coverage; then Atlanta used mesh routes and trips formations to beat man looks or flooded an area on the field to beat zone. Washington, like many Falcons opponents this year, had no answer.
With their offense firing on all cylinders, Matt Ryan and Co. give the Falcons a chance to win every week. The only question will be whether that group’s performance is going to be consistent enough to overcome what’s been one of the league’s worst defenses. Atlanta got to the Super Bowl in 2016 with a well-below-average defensive unit, sure—but this year’s group, thanks to injuries to Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen, is, well, much worse. They’re well behind that team’s pace in points allowed, yards allowed, yards per play, turnovers, first downs, and defensive drive success rate.
Falcons Defense in 2016 and 2018
|2018 (on pace)||28.3||412.8||6.4||16||400||44.6|
That means that as potent as this Falcons offense has been, they may need to be even better down the stretch. The good news is they’re still just scratching the surface of what they can do: For starters, getting Jones (who finally caught his first touchdown of the season last week!) more red zone looks can only help; Atlanta’s got to get more out of their all-world receiver inside the 20-yard line. Sarkisian needs to boost the team’s rushing attack, too. That group, which ranks 29th in yards and is tied for 21st in yards per attempt, could be going in the right direction after rushing for 154 yards against Washington.
Sark’s still leaving plenty of meat on the bone with what he can do with Coleman and backup Ito Smith in the passing game, too. In 2016, Devonta Freeman (now on IR with a groin injury) and Coleman combined for 85 catches for 883 yards and five touchdowns through the air, often lining up on the field together at the same time to create mismatches. The team’s current backfield duo is well off the catches and yards pace, but it’s still early. Coleman’s dangerous on vertical routes and Sarkisian could find more ways to get him involved there.
Even if Atlanta can check all those boxes, the team’s road to the playoffs is not going to be easy. The Falcons have four relatively winnable games left on their schedule—at the Browns, at home against the Cowboys and Cardinals, and on the road against the Buccaneers—but an 8-8 finish isn’t going to be enough in a crowded NFC. Atlanta’s going to have to find a way to blow up and win at least two of its four tougher remaining matchups, beating the odds against the Saints and Panthers on the road, in its home matchup with the Ravens, or at Lambeau Field against the Packers. That might sound like a long shot, but in this offense-dominated season, we might be sleeping on what this resurgent Falcons unit can do.