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A Closer Look: Kyle Shanahan’s brilliance puts players in high percentage situations

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With (likely) one game left as offensive coordinator, it feels right to highlight the mastermind himself. Kyle Shanahan devised an outstanding game plan to demolish another opposing defense.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons offense has been recognized as one of the most prolific units in NFL history, and with good reason.

They have obliterated opposing defenses on a frequent basis. In past seasons, their productive offense was led by stars such as Michael Turner, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez, and for all that talent, those offenses never produced a sustained stretch of dominance. Whether it falls on coaching, lack of balance, or poor offensive line play, an explosive offense on paper never quite translated onto the field. According to Andrew Hirsh, the Falcons have won by an average margin of 19 points during their six game winning streak, which means that explosion is there now.

Nobody can discount the overall firepower. Matt Ryan’s deep ball and decision making have greatly improved. Julio Jones is the best wide receiver in the league. There isn’t a more lethal running back duo than Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. A combination of speed with Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson to crafty route runners like Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy forms a terrific wide receiver group. Despite their obvious talent, Kyle Shanahan gives them a significant boost towards becoming a historic offense.

The offensive mastermind knows how to design creative plays and create mismatches or glaring openings. Look no further than Coleman’s touchdown against Seattle. He gives his players every opportunity to contribute in some manner. That was evident against Green Bay in a thrilling performance.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most standout plays or disappointing decisions. One particular player, positional group, or situation is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are seven successful plays showing Shanahan’s greatness. There are some extra angles to provide another view for each play.

1st quarter: 1st and 10 at GB 36

The Falcons didn’t waste time on their first drive. Dom Capers quickly realized that his defense was going to endure a long afternoon. Gabriel is sent in motion, which immediately attracts attention. Opposing defenses recognize his speed and playmaking ability. To go with Gabriel, they run play action with Coleman. Two of their fastest weapons are available as receiving options. Don’t forget Jones is running a deep curl and commanding double coverage.

Joe Thomas is mainly responsible for leaving Patrick DiMarco open in the flat. This is a slick play designed to utilize multiple explosive players out of the backfield. It seems like everything is covered, until nobody picks up DiMarco. Shanahan creates a well-designed play by using three of their most dangerous receiving options to free up the starting fullback.

1st quarter: 1st and 10 at GB 12

Who would have expected Shanahan to run a play in the wildcat formation during the NFC Championship? This is what makes the future head coach so unique. They have only used Sanu in the wildcat once this season. It occurred against Arizona, which translated into a five-yard gain. The versatile wide receiver is known for excelling in different formations. Hue Jackson found great success utilizing him on trick plays. Shanahan prefers to use him mainly as a wide receiver.

As every great offensive coordinator does, you have to keep the opposing defense guessing. By using Coleman in the backfield, it leaves Datone Jones off balance and allows Ryan Schraeder to clear out Mike Daniels. Alex Mack makes a great seal block to give Sanu more space as well. A great play design combined with excellent blocking usually results in a positive gain. Sanu gained seven yards on first down.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 20

The Ringer’s Robert Mays broke this play down in an excellent piece. What can be highlighted is how Shanahan makes a superstar wide receiver’s life easier. All it takes is creating space and utilizing play action on this play. Linebackers Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas bite on the play action fake and can’t recover quickly enough to prevent the completed pass.

Green Bay can’t leave DiMarco alone in the flat again. That forces Pro Bowl safety HaHa Clinton Dix to cover him. Morgan Burnett isn’t going to leave his spot, as Sanu is running a seam route. That leaves Ladarius Gunter isolated with Jones. A recurring nightmare scenario left Capers’ defense doomed.

2nd quarter: 3rd and 10 at GB 33

The Falcons converted ten out of 13 third down situations. Here is a prime example of their dominance. Green Bay decides to get creative with their secondary. They use Micah Hyde and Burnett as blitzers, while dropping Clay Matthews into coverage. Coleman wipes out Burnett with a beautiful cut block.

As the offensive line holds up, Ryan recognizes there is no underneath coverage. Jones happens to be running an in-breaking route and not a single defender is near him. This is another beautiful design, as Sanu and Gabriel clear out room for Jones. No offense makes big plays look easier than the Falcons. Nobody touches Jones before he picks up 19 yards.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 23

Some analysts expected Coleman to have a big game against Green Bay’s slow defense. It didn’t exactly transpire based on the game not being competitive and Jones’ explosion. They managed to still utilize him in the passing game. Toilolo motions to the left, which makes Green Bay’s defense shift. It leaves Coleman isolated against Thomas. The second-year player runs an option route and creates enough separation to gain 17 yards.

Gabriel’s go route creates space for him to gain extra yardage after the catch. Thomas actually plays good coverage, but Ryan’s perfect ball placement overcomes it. Not every well-designed play is going to create a coverage breakdown. Sometimes, you will need your stud quarterback to make a precise throw in a tight window.

3rd quarter: 2nd and 8 at ATL 27

Jones showed off his superhuman talent on this touchdown. This is a pretty standard play call, but it shows how Shanahan adjusted from their first meeting against Green Bay. A foot injury did slow down Jones in that game. Capers used bracket coverage to limit him as well. As Jones primarily lined up on the outside, they used Gunter to shadow him and left a safety over the top. It nearly created a game-clinching interception for Clinton-Dix. Green Bay would have finished higher than Atlanta in the standings, if the playmaking safety secured Jones’ drop.

To avoid bracket coverage, Shanahan ran plays for Jones in the slot. That would allow him to work on the overmatched undrafted cornerback without worrying about safety help. Not even being ferociously held slowed down Jones. He took advantage of the favorable matchup in the slot and essentially ended the game. When Jones is being moved around, he tends to play at his best. Green Bay had no answer for covering him in the slot. They were left hopeless against his strength, explosiveness, acceleration and balance to stay inbounds.

3rd quarter: 3rd and goal at GB 4

Shanahan didn’t need to call many rub routes against Green Bay’s porous secondary. Receivers were getting open on a consistent basis. When entering the red zone, he dialed one up for Freeman. Austin Hooper does a good job running his route without trying to blatantly shield Burnett from closing down a potential touchdown. Thomas is forced to pick up Hardy’s crossing route instead of reading Ryan’s eyes and attempting to jump the pass.

Both players create just enough space for Freeman to make this catch. Once again, Ryan throws a pinpoint pass to give his dynamic running back a great opportunity to score a touchdown. It takes a collective effort for these plays to be properly executed, especially in the red zone.