Why the Falcons’ offense is trending in the right direction

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If the NFL playoffs began today, your seventh seed in the NFC would be?

The Atlanta Falcons.

With their win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday the Falcons improved to 4-4 as the season hit its midway point. Whether they end up in the post-season or not remains to be seen, but after getting wins against teams like the Giants, the Jets and the Dolphins, a statement victory over the Saints on the road has people taking notice, and wondering what to make of the Falcons.

Today, we are going to discuss their offense.

At first blush, making the case that people should buy in on the Falcons offense seems like an uphill battle.

After all, we are talking about an offense that, statistically speaking, might be middle of the pack at best. Football Outsiders’ DVOA does the Falcons offensive unit no favors, as Atlanta’s offense checks in with a Total DVOA that ranks 25th in the league, a Weighted DVOA that ranks 25th, a Passing DVOA that ranks 20th and a Rushing DVOA that checks in dead-last in the league.

This is a rushing attack that ranks 29th in the league in Yards per Game, averaging just 80.4 rushing yards this season. The Falcons also average just 3.4 Yards per Attempt, clocking in 31st overall.

Thankfully, this is a passing league, which helps buoy their overall numbers. Matt Ryan has posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 6.64, which places him 18th overall in the league. Again, in the middle of the pack when compared to the rest of the NFL.

Perhaps the best way to think about their offense is through the realm of Expected Points Added. Here is how the Falcons stack up against the rest of the league, courtesy of RBSDM.com:

That is a nice visual of how the rushing attack is working as an anchor on the offense, but the passing attack is still just above league average.

And yet…

When you watch the Falcons each week, you see some elements that can certainly get an offense rolling. So while the numbers might not help the case, you can point to the offense and make the argument that this unit is starting to put things together.

It starts with matchups.

The importance of matchups

(AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

The NFL is a matchup-based league. Offensive coordinators spend hours scheming up ways to create advantageous situations for key players, and then exploit them when the ball is snapped.

Say what you want about Matt Patricia, but he tapped into that idea with this quote from his time with the Detroit Lions:

Or consider this from quarterback Justin Herbert, on what running back Austin Ekeler offers the Los Angeles Chargers:

That’s just one of those plays that you have to feel out and depending on where the linebacker attaches leverage. Ek is such a great receiving back out of the backfield, we’ve always got a mismatch with him. Finding ways to get him the ball and he makes a great catch. It’s good to see from him.

Now like many things with football, this is not a new concept. Take this answer from former Falcons head coach Mike Smith from a question asked by Doug Farrar at the 2010 NFL combine:

I really think it affects the way you put your football team together. When you are talking about a spacing offense you . . . . when you have three receivers and a running back who can run routes just like a receiver, you’ve got four wide receivers and you have to be able to match up. The sub linebacker position is something that I think is evolving and will continue to evolve. Where you normally had linebacker types you are going to see more safeties and possibly even big cornerbacks that will play on those downs. You are going to see much more six and possibly even seven defensive back schemes to match up with the skill players and the level of skill that the offenses are able to put on the field.

Or perhaps more on point, is this legendary bit of football wisdom, usually attributed to legendary college coach Darrell Royal:

“It’s not the X’s and the O’s, but the Jimmys and the Joes.”

With that in mind, now we can look at what new head coach Arthur Smith has to play with.

Perhaps two of the biggest matchup weapons in the league.

The first matchup weapon that Smith has at his disposal should not be a surprise: Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. During the buildup to the 2021 NFL draft, many looked at Pitts as not just the best tight end in the draft, but potentially one of the best wide receivers. During his time at Florida, Pitts showed the ability to get open not just against linebackers and safeties, but also cornerbacks, including some pretty good ones down in the SEC.

That has continued into his young NFL career, perhaps starting with Atlanta’s win over the Miami Dolphins. Early in the game Pitts worked open on this vertical route against strong safety Eric Rowe:

When you force a defense to take a man coverage cornerback like Howard and put him on your rookie tight end in a critical spot, you are creating the kind of matchups elsewhere on the field that you can perhaps exploit.

But let’s face it, it’s even better when that rookie tight end can still get open and make a play.

Perhaps even an interception thrown by Ryan illustrates this point. Take this play from Week 8 against the Carolina Panthers:

Atlanta breaks the huddle with a 12 personnel package with both Pitts and Hayden Hurst in the game at tight end, and Patterson as the running back. The Buccaneers respond with a base 3-4 look. So what does Smith dial up? A screen to Patterson out of the backfield which goes for a 23-yard gain.

Or take this third-down conversion from last week against the Saints:

On this 3rd and 9 play, New Orleans rolls out a sub package with six defensive back. However, when the Falcons empty the formation, Patterson finds linebacker Kwon Alexander across from him. Now either the Saints are asking Alexander to play in zone coverage on the boundary, or they are in man coverage, with Patterson working against a linebacker.

Ryan spots this, pump fakes in Patterson’s direction on the hitch route, and Patterson gets separation downfield on the vertical for a huge play.

The combination of Patterson and Pitts on the offense puts the defense in a position where they have to think before each play how those two are to be treated. Do you treat them as a tight end and a running back, and play base? Do you treat them as both wide receivers, and respond with sub packages? And beyond that, how do you play the matchups with them?

The flexibility these two players offers Smith puts Atlanta’s head coach in a position to create some favorable matchups pre-snap, and then exploit them once the play begins.

Getting that run game going

(Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Now, as outlined earlier the Atlanta running game is not exactly one of the best in the league. In a few different ways, you can make the argument that the Falcons’ ground attack is perhaps the worst in the league.

But there are ways that Smith can look to get the ground attack back on track. One of them? Is by taking what we just talked about — the matchup problems that Pitts and Patterson present — and using them to create favorable running opportunities.

Take this run from Patterson against the Jets:

On this 1st and 10 play, the Falcons come out with a 21 personnel grouping with Pitts at tight end, Patterson as one running back and fullback Keith Smith in the game in front of Patterson. Washington, perhaps thinking about the threat of the pass, responds with a 4-2-5 nickel package. Atlanta keeps the ball on the ground, running to the right side. Even with Washington stacking the box, you have a tight end and a fullback leading the way, working against safeties instead of linebackers.

We can spin back to Week 1, and see the Atlanta offense converting a 3rd and 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles by keeping the football on the ground against a sub package:

There is a phrase around the game, mentioned yesterday when Nate Tice breaking down the Denver Broncos defensive effort against Dallas on a Twitch stream, that states “spread to run.” Spread defenses out by formation and then run against those looks. For Atlanta, a way to perhaps get that run game working might be that, or maybe “sub to run.”

Take advantage of the matchup problems that Pitts and Patterson present, and how defenses respond to them. If they respond with sub packages, take advantage and run against those light boxes. If they stay in heavier packages, try and get the favorable matchups with Pitts and Patterson in the passing game.

The quarterback

We can close this out with a look at quarterback Matt Ryan.

The veteran passer, who was a point of contention this past spring when many wondered if the Falcons would address the quarterback position with the fourth-overall selection, has put up solid numbers this season. Not spectacular, but solid. He has completed 69.4% of his passes for 2,157 yards and 15 touchdowns, against six interceptions. His Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, as outlined earlier, comes in at 6.64, placing him 18th in the league.

Here is how Ryan shapes up when compared to the rest of the league, on an efficiency basis, courtesy of RBSDM.com:

Watching Ryan on film, you can see how he is also becoming more comfortable in this offense, and the weapons around him. You could first see it in Atlanta’s win over the New York Giants:

The second play in this video? A look at how the Falcons used a 21 personnel package to get a favorable defense to throw against.

Then in the win over the Dolphins, Ryan looked very comfortable, particularly attacking downfield:

Finally last Sunday, and the road win over the Saints. Ryan was comfortable in the pocket, moved well when he needed too, and delivered a big win over New Orleans:

As the offense under Smith grows and evolves, Ryan seems to be growing alongside it.

What might this mean for Atlanta’s chances going forward? Well, they have some tougher games coming up, including this weekend at Dallas, New England on a short week, one more game against Tampa Bay and the season finale against the Saints.

But with the matchup problems they present to defenses, with how Ryan has played in recent weeks, and if they find ways to create advantageous opportunities for their ground game, the Falcons might be worth keeping an eye on down the stretch.

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