The Falcons have welcomed Kyle Shanahan to Atlanta as their new offensive coordinator under head coach Dan Quinn. Shanahan spoke to the media earlier this week to answer questions about his new role and his offensive philosophy.
Shanahan didn't actually know Dan Quinn personally when Quinn reached out to him during the 2013 season to gauge Shanahan's interest in being Quinn's offensive coordinator had he been offered a head coach position. The two developed a relationship over the phone and remained friendly despite the fact that Quinn remained in his position as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks during the 2014 season.
As the coaching search ramped up in January, many speculated that Atlanta would be a popular destination for potential coaches because of quarterback Matt Ryan. Shanahan seemed eager to work with Atlanta's signal caller. "I think Matt Ryan fits in everybody's offense," Shanahan said. "When you've got a good quarterback like Matt - he's done a little bit of everything, whether it's drop back, whether it's play action. He hasn't done a lot of movement stuff, but he has athletic ability to do it. So I'm really excited to get with him."
Quinn said in his introductory press conference that the Falcons would strive for a balanced offense, which is something Atlanta hasn't been able to achieve over the past couple of seasons. With the need for balance in mind, the running back position is currently a question mark, and Shanahan said he doesn't have a set type when it comes to running backs. "I like a good running back," Shanahan said, eliciting some chuckles from the media. "There's no absolute. I've had big guys and I've had smaller guys, and I'll take any type of guy. I think Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch are pretty good backs who are pretty big. That doesn't mean I don't want LeSean McCoy. So I think any type of back can succeed in the system."
That doesn't mean that Shanahan doesn't have standards for those backs. "But the type of guys you want are guys who can put their foot in the ground, get downhill. You do want guys who can run and create arm tackles and then run through them. I'm not looking for a guy...that you have to give 30 carries to to get 100 yards. You want guys who get downhill, who get over four yards a carry and they move the chains for you."
As far as the running backs who are currently on the roster, Shanahan said that even though he has just been in Atlanta for a week, the main thing the coaching staff is focused on currently is getting familiar with their own personnel. "I don't have a set opinion right now because I haven't watched enough tape, but Steven [Jackson] is a guy I've been a huge fan of over his whole career. Devonta [Freeman] was someone I loved coming out of college last year. And then the guy from Oregon State [Jacquizz Rodgers], I loved him coming out of college."
An offensive coordinator's relationship with his quarterback is important. Shanahan said he looks forward to building that relationship with Matt Ryan. "You work as hard as you can to put guys in a situation to be successful. You want to know what makes them comfortable. You want them to communicate with you that, hey, I know this might work, but I'm uncomfortable with it. You need to dialogue throughout the week and you try plays throughout the week - that's what we practice for. But going into that game on Sunday, you've got a very good idea of what he likes, what I like, and it's just a process of communicating with each other. There's lots of ways to win."
Atlanta certainly has some high-caliber offensive talent in Ryan and Julio Jones. Shanahan said that does make this transition more comfortable. "Everybody wants that franchise guy, and to already be in a situation where they have that, it is very enjoyable," Shanahan said. "It lets you focus on other things, focus on other positions. It makes things easier. It makes things easier for the other positions. And it always makes it a little bit easier to coach, too."
Shanahan had great success in Houston with Andre Johnson, and he said that Julio Jones compares favorably to Johnson in his prime. "There's lots of different ways to be good at receiver, but Andre and Julio are two guys who are as explosive as anybody," Shanahan said. "The way they come off the ball and the way they can eat up a cushion and scare a DB every single play by just their power...to come off the ball, the physicalness they play with coming through the ball. It's very exciting. It's routes and dropbacks and screens, but in the play action game, too, especially. They can pull the top off and scare people deep, and when people are deep they can do the intermediate stuff, too."
Shanahan shared his thoughts on the transition to a zone blocking scheme. "We believe in the outside zone scheme, and we're going to do a lot of things but we're going to major in running the outside zone," Shanahan said. This is the scheme he has primarily employed in all of this tenures as an offensive coordinator. "It's something I do believe in very strongly, and the main thing we're going to get these linemen, when they get in here, is we just want to get them to run. They're going to run a lot more than they ever have before. We're going to try to challenge the defense sideline to sideline, not just between the tackles. And it's a challenge to get guys to run but yet to still be as physical as anybody, so there's an element there that's not just lateral but it's getting downhill, too. It takes time to develop."
Well, installing a whole new blocking scheme prior to the start of the season seems a little intimidating. Shanahan said that getting guys to buy into the scheme is a big part of this process. "When you get the commitment from guys to do it, you rep it all the time, guys usually come around."
With so much changing for the players, Shanahan said he expects training camp to be intense, but the o-line should be fun to watch as they adapt to this new scheme. "Receivers run routes all of their whole career, and there's certain things we'll ask them to do differently...but o-linemen, it's a little bit different what we'll ask them to do," Shanahan said. "So some things will be new to them, but I think they'll enjoy it and I think we'll have the tape to show them so they believe in it, and then we will get them plenty of reps."
Lack of adjustments was a consistent criticism of Atlanta over the past couple of seasons, and Shanahan seems to have a good understanding of the importance of in-game adjustments and being strategic. "We're never going to say we're just going to do this no matter what they play. That's a very hard life when you live that way, especially in the NFL," Shanahan said. "We're going to make them defend the deep ball, and you've got to do that. And when they do defend the deep ball, it makes the intermediate passes a lot easier. And if they know you aren't going to throw that deep ball, then life is extremely tough. So you've got to take it into each game, what your game plan is going in, what they've put on tape, and you've got to be ready to change that in the first quarter, second quarter, and series to series. So anything we do from a schematic standpoint is we're going to try to give our guys the advantage."
Tight end is another question mark for Atlanta at present, and Shanahan acknowledges that the position is important for multiple reasons. "Yeah, I think tight end is always important because it's hard to have the threat of many runs if a tight end's not out there," Shanahan said. "You'd love to go four receivers every single play, maybe five receivers, but it makes it a lot easier for the defense when they know you have to throw it. The more times fullbacks go off the field or tight ends go off the field, it limits your run options which makes you not as balanced. So the threat of a tight end who could be out there, which opens up your run game, but also is a threat and a matchup in the pass game, and it makes it a lot easier for a play caller, it makes it easier for the o-linemen, for everybody, because it's hard in this league if you become one-dimensional."
Matt Ryan's pretty good in the no-huddle, and fans wondered why Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith didn't place more emphasis on that this past season. Shanahan said there's a time for no-huddle, but like everything else about the offense, the use of the no-huddle has to be balanced. "I think there's pluses and minuses to it, just like everything. It's great if you're scoring. It's a nightmare when you go three-and-out in five seconds and the defense is right back on the field," Shanahan said.
Shanahan also said that his offenses have a pretty quick tempo whether they huddle or not. "It's something I've done a little bit of these last two years. I did a lot more in Cleveland last year," Shanahan said. "I want to say going into week 12, we were the second team behind Philly of the fastest in between plays. I don't know if we finished that way. That was just a stat I saw towards the end of the year, so that was something I did a lot of. Even when we don't do no huddle, our tempo's pretty fast. We get in and out of huddle extremely fast."
The Falcons have some running backs who can be weapons on the passing game, which Shanahan sees as a nice skill, but he wants them to be good running backs primarily. "The main thing is I want a running back first of all," Shanahan said. "I don't want to draft a guy who's just good in the pass game. I mean, the first and foremost thing is I want a guy who we can give the rock to and he can carry it, and the pass game is a bonus. I haven't had too many elite guys in that category. I'm always looking for one. I hope to have one, because it does make third downs a lot easier. It makes red zone a lot easier. You've got some serious matchup issues with linebackers and stuff. But it's, first and foremost, I want a guy to run the ball."
During his career, Shanahan has gotten a lot of production out of his offenses. Success in the red zone, however, has been more elusive. His approach to red zone offense is matter-of-fact. "You want to get your best players the ball down there," Shanahan said. "And it's changed with every team. I don't know all my numbers and what they've been in the red zone over the years. I'm sure that we've had good ones...but it depends on your team. You'd always like to run the ball. It makes it a lot easier down there, but it also gets harder to run the ball. It gets tight. When that happens, you need good quarterback play, you need big targets. But there's lots of different ways to be good in the red zone."
What it comes down to, according to Shanahan, is finding ways to make the players he has to work with successful. "If you don't, you usually don't last there too long."
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