Devonta Freeman was absolutely breathtaking on Sunday. It was, by a very considerable margin, the best performance of his young career as he put on a dominating, dazzling performance against the Dallas Cowboys.
While Freeman's hard-nosed running was the focal point of Sunday's excitement, his performance in conjunction with great blocking by the offensive line and Patrick DiMarco was masterful. This offense is firing on all cylinders right now. Atlanta has an element to their offense that they haven't really had the past two seasons: a competent rushing attack. With Tevin Coleman out with a rib injury, Freeman needed to show he could handle a full workload by himself, and did he ever prove that.
One of the most successful plays that the Falcons ran against the Cowboys was their quick toss to the short side of the field. Kyle Shanahan has shown a tendency to call toss plays when the offense is close to the sideline because it naturally sets up rushing lanes to exploit for big games.
There were three key blocks on this that allowed Freeman to spring free down the sideline. The cut blocks by Patrick DiMarco and Ryan Schraeder gave Freeman plenty of room to run uninhibited. Roddy White, who has been an excellent blocker this season, pancakes Brandon Carr allowing Freeman to gain a full head of steam before he rams through J.J. Wilcox for the first down.
The blocking effort consistently sustained at all three levels of the defense is phenomenal to see, and it's something that the Falcons have sorely lacked throughout the past two seasons.
While Kyle Shanahan has quickly grown to fame due to the monstrous stats that the passing game is posting, he deserves equal credit for the run blocking schemes that he's implemented into this offense. One of the core running plays in a zone blocking scheme is the outside zone. Plenty of teams have this play as a staple in their rushing attack, but Shanahan makes it a little easier on the offensive line (and in turn the running back) with the minimization of "impossible blocks".
Here's a clear example from both the Cowboys and the Falcons highlighting the difference in how they run outside zone.
The presence of a fullback on the outside zone decreases the pressure on the offensive line to make extremely difficult reach blocks. Most defensive linemen are better athletes than offensive linemen; asking offensive linemen to beat defensive linemen on reach blocks when their shaded away is easier said than done.
Since the outside zone is a prominent play in zone blocking schemes, defenses usually have a fairly easy time deciphering when the play is going to occur based on formation tendencies through film study. Offensive linemen need a lot of help in these occasions, because the natural holes that open up with the line starts to shift are easy to knife through by opposing defensive linemen.
La'el Collins and Zack Martin have the toughest assignments on this play. La'el Collins has to reach block Paul Soliai and Zack Martin has to reach block Grady Jarrett. The alignment of Soliai and Jarrett make this nearly impossible and they both explode through the line of scrimmage for a big tackle for loss.
Here's how Kyle Shanahan tries to eliminate isolating his offensive linemen on these stretch plays. The execution in the following play isn't perfect by any means, but the concepts are there.
Like I stated before, the presence of the fullback makes the job easier on the offensive line. Notice the teamwork by Andy Levitre and Mike Person. Forcing Person to reach block Nick Hayden by himself would've put stress on Patrick DiMarco and Devonta Freeman.
While it looks like Jake Matthews misses Jack Crawford on his blocking assignment, he actually played it correctly. Crawford slanted out of Matthews' zone and into DiMarco's zone. While Matthews and DiMarco are performing basic zone blocking scheme assignments, the double team by Levitre and Person is more of a gap blocking assignment. The double team not only slows Nick Hayden in his pursuit, but it allows Person to complete a reach block with the extra shove from Levitre.
After helping with the double team, Levitre moves up to the second level and impedes the progress of linebacker Anthony Hitchens. The combination of gap and zone concepts in the running game only add to the brilliance that Kyle Shanahan brings to this offense as a whole, he's one of the best in the business.
Julio Jones is on pace to smash multiple NFL records through three games; he has to be accounted for no matter where he lines up on the field. The Falcons were able to his dynamic ability to create space at the line of scrimmage for Freeman.
By motioning him into the backfield it forces the defensive end to account for his presence. The motion turns 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) into 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end). This changes the rules for the secondary and the front seven, causing confusion at the snap of the ball. Jake Matthews leaves the defensive end unblocked (which is a bit reckless), but the extra body in the backfield created by Julio Jones forces the defensive end to think about containing the edge for a split second, long enough to spring Freeman forward on the fullback dive for a positive play.
Julio has become such a huge threat that he forces the defense to respect him at every position he lines up in; Kyle Shanahan knows this and uses him to open up the entire offense.
The continuous calling of toss and stretch plays really opened up the middle of the field. Dallas was consistently getting beat to the edge, so when they recognized formations that the Falcons typically run outside zone out of they tried to beat Freeman to the outside. This opened a "shot play" of sorts in the run game. Shot plays are typically explosive passing plays that mean in-game tendencies of the defense, but Shanahan used the same thought process in the rushing attack.
The offensive line sells the outside zone play hard here. From the viewpoint of the linebackers and defensive line it appears to be a simple read to attack the borders off the offensive line for a tackle for loss. Take note of Matt Ryan's steps here, the handoff and run direction were never planned to go outside. There's almost two different run plays taking action here: the outside zone being executed by the offensive line and the inside zone performed by Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman.
A massive rift in the middle of the defense gets exposed and Freeman has a clear path to burst into the endzone. Counteracting the natural flow of the defense with this brilliant playcall gave the Falcons the lead in the fourth quarter, which they never relinquished.
Atlanta finally has a legitimate run game. Pair the budding the run game with the already explosive passing attack and the Falcons clearly have one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. Once Tevin Coleman comes back from injury, this offense is going to take off.