Well-designed Falcons offense took the Panthers apart
Star receiver Julio Jones didn’t have that 300-yard game because of good karma
As a former player, I have grown frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.
In Week 3, the New Orleans Saints defense was determined to contain the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones. And they did, holding JJ to just one catch for 16 yards. However, Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for nearly 300 yards of offense and four touchdowns. Scoring 45 points, the Falcons beat the Saints, 45-32.
On Sunday, Jones had 300 yards receiving. Yes, 300 BLEEPING YARDS! Good God, Julio, that ain’t right.Somebody check that boy’s birth certificate. I think he is older than the rest of the kids. JJ must be a ringer. I am not sure how else to explain his obscene performance. The Falcons scored 48 points against a tough Panthers defense. Though two games is a small sample size, Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Matt Ryan seemed to have figured out how to baffle opponents with the Julio Paradox.
Simply put, Jones’ otherworldly talent creates a “pick your poison” scenario for NFL defensive coordinators. Devote your scheme to containing Jones, and leave the defense vulnerable in other areas, or play a more honest defense and take your chances with Jones. It sounds easy for the offense, right? Well, it’s not. Let’s dive into the coaches’ film to see what the Falcons did.
As you would guess, the Falcons did not do poorly, but they were not perfect. So, we will start where we always start, with the negatives.
1. Penalties and pressure
The Falcons’ offensive line was penalized for holding on three first-down running plays. Those are particularly bad penalties. Not that any penalty is good, but holding on running plays is worse than holding on passing plays because of the potential result of the play had the hold not occurred. Holding on a passing play may cost you 10 yards, but it could save your quarterback from getting injured or turning the ball over. The worst-case scenario for a missed block on a running play is a loss of a couple of yards.
Ryan was under pressure on a few passing plays and was sacked three times on Sunday. Overall, the offensive line was pretty good, but holding penalties and sacks are normally drive-killers. But still, the Falcons could do no wrong. Two of the three drives beset by holding penalties ended with touchdowns, only once were they not able to overcome 1st and 20.
1. Ryan passing under pressure
Ryan took those negatives and made pretty pictures. A few of his most impressive passes of the game came when he had a defender in his face and/or he was facing difficult down-and-distance situations. The play after a first-quarter holding penalty, Ryan threw a perfect deep ball to Jones for 43 yards, while being hit by Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson.
After two ineffective running plays, the Falcons were on their own 28-yard line facing third and 7. The Panthers sent a safety and linebacker on a well-disguised zone-blitz, and Ryan completed an out route off of his back foot to convert the third down.
2. Counterintuitive playcalling
After running the ball on first and second down effectively and often last week against the Saints, Shanahan called passing plays for Jones on early downs. Especially given how well they ran the ball last week, he and Ryan could be fairly sure that the Panthers would be in a single deep-safety defense (cover 1 or cover 3), guaranteeing Jones would only have to beat the cornerback. The first three plays of the game were completed passes to Jones. If that wasn’t enough to make the Falcons’ intentions clear, in the first half, Jones was thrown to nine times, seven of which were on first down.
This strategic decision was not without risk for the Falcons. They have a defense that ranks among the worst in the league. When a team has a bad defense, it is important for the offense to keep the clock running and advance the ball. If those first-down passes were incomplete, the clock stops and the ball is punted away. The bad defense will end up on the field for more plays and be in bad field position. Even when the Falcons started drives on their own 1 and 2 yard lines, they threw the ball on early downs. One of those passes was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, but it was tipped by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis.
3. Thoughtfully-designed plays
Shanahan’s craftiest plays were not designed to get Jones the ball. I was most impressed by passes to fullback Patrick DiMarco and backup tight end Austin Hooper.
The pass to DiMarco was designed to fool Panthers All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly. The initial formation had the tight end split wide outside of the receiver. The outside linebacker Shaq Thompson followed him, indicating to Ryan that the Panthers, who mostly play cover 3, are now in man-to-man coverage. Ryan waved for the tight end to motion back to his traditional alignment next to the tackle. The tailback and fullback are in the I formation behind Ryan. At the snap of the ball, the Falcons run what looks like an isolation run play, which would require DiMarco to block Kuechly at the line of scrimmage. But it is a play-action pass. Kuechly charges up to meet DiMarco’s “Iso” block at the line, DiMarco avoids him and runs uncovered into the area vacated by a streaking receiver. Ryan connects with DiMarco for an 18-yard gain.
The pass to Hooper was a first down, play-action throwback that went for a 42-yard touchdown. With “13” personnel on the field (one back, three tight ends and one receiver), the defense is expecting run. The one receiver is Jones, so the defenders are going to account for him while playing the run aggressively. The Falcons run a play-action run to the left where Jones is lined up, and Ryan bootlegs back to his right. Jones runs a deep crossing route from left to right, and the Panthers know it. It was well covered by the backside corner and safety, but suddenly Ryan stops and throws back to the left. Hooper is all alone at the goal line: touchdown. There really isn’t anyone on the defense to blame, this was just a really well-designed play. The Panthers were in cover 4, the backside corner and safety did exactly what they should have done given the keys they were given. Technically, the weak side linebacker should carry any wheel routes, but since the play fake drew them to the line and Hooper came from the strong side, it was impossible for him to recognize the play until it was too late.
Nicely done, Kyle, nicely done!
Players do the hard work on the field, so I am reluctant to give a lot of credit to coaches. However, the credit is well-deserved this time. I am looking forward to seeing what Shanahan does the next two weeks, when his offense will be trying to crack two historically great defenses, the Denver Broncos followed by the Seattle Seahawks.
The NFC South is there for the taking. But if the Falcons are going to win it, they’ll have to continue to play unstoppable offense. Because there is no reason to believe that their defense will suddenly start to contain opposing offenses.