After Kyle Shanahan moved on to the San Francisco 49ers head coaching position, the Falcons hired University of Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to the same position. The move was met with raised eyebrows after Sarkisian's tenure with the University of Southern California ended in turmoil, but Dan Quinn and Steve Sarkisian have known each other for years and kept in contact with each other.
Sarkisian only controlled the offense for one game at Alabama, but he did great job exploiting his own effective tendencies and making the game manageable for freshman Jalen Hurts, who struggles to throw the ball at times. The biggest name coming out of Alabama's offense into the NFL this year is tight end O.J. Howard.
Atlanta doesn't necessarily have a huge need at tight end with Austin Hooper playing well as a rookie, but pairing Hooper with a burner would add another dimension to the offense, and Howard already has familiarity with Sarkisian.
Howard is an excellent athlete for the tight end position. NFL Draft Scout has Howard's pre-combine measurements at 6'6", 249 pounds with a projected 4.57 40 yard dash. That freakish size and speed combination consistently shows up on tape, even if Howard isn't the most polished receiver at this point in his career.
Steve Sarkisian was excellent in masking the deficiencies of Alabama's offense against a tenacious, speedy Clemson defense. Since Jalen Hurts isn't the most accurate passer (to put it kindly), Sarkisian lulled Clemson's defense to sleep with a lot of stretch runs, screens, and option plays. This playcalling put Clemson's defense in a routine that had them horizontally flowing the field because the deep vertical threat hadn't been made.
In the third quarter Sarkisian broke from his horizontal tendencies with a big shot down the field.
This isn't a complex play design, but running Clemson's defense across the field so much made it a devastating call for a touchdown. It's a play action slip screen by #1 (receiver closest to the sideline) and a wheel route by #2 (O.J. Howard). Howard isn't the greatest at getting off of jams and escaping coverage, but putting him in a situation where he can run unimpeded down the field is a nightmare for defenses.
Clemson's defense immediately attacked the screen because that's what the tendencies of Alabama's offense throughout the game said to attack. When they did that, Howard was free for a huge touchdown over the top.
In the fourth quarter with the game on the line, Sarkisian dialed up another call to get Howard open in space with some trickery. This play had screen packaged into the design again, except this time it was a double pass after forcing the defense to flow the opposite direction.
As stated before, Jalen Hurts' limitations boxed Alabama into a situation where they were forced to stretch the field horizontally instead of vertically. When the Clemson initially saw the screen to ArDarius Stewart, they crashed towards the ball and O.J Howard was able to zoom behind the pursuing defense to find the soft spot along the sideline for a big gain.
Again, Howard didn't have to do much to get open due to the play action. As my frenemy Kyle Posey says, "getting open versus play action is not a skill." That's more about being an athlete and taking advantage of the space the defense gives up by playing their initial read first.
Why did Steve Sarkisian have to manufacture these touches for O.J. Howard? He's receiving hype by some people as a top 10 prospect in this draft, but a tight end that's touted as a top 10 player needs to be able to consistently get open against man coverage, and Howard didn't do that enough at the college level.
Before teams started running heavy nickel and dime packages, tight ends could be dangerous receiving threats without being nuanced route runners because they were typically being matched up on linebackers. Now these guys are increasingly being covered by safeties and cornerbacks which requires an uptick in skill to consistently break free from.
Howard isn't the most adept player when it comes to leverage himself open against man and zone coverage. Here Howard is at the hash near the bottom of the screen. He doesn't always have the greatest feel or nuance on how to get open against man coverage and runs straight down the field without attempting to break free from the cornerback.
Again, if a tight end is going to be a top 10 prospect he needs to be an advanced receiver. A big part of being a prolific receiver in the NFL is being able to adjust to the quarterback when he's under pressure and give him an outlet to throw a pass.
Clemson overloaded the right side of Alabama's offensive by sending three blitzers in the opposite direction of the protection slide. Howard is inline at the top of the screen and has a short curl route where he reaches his initial landmark uncovered because the coverage is reacting to the shift by the offensive line.
The blitz forces Hurts to step up in the pocket and erases the left side of the field from his view. This is a seven man protection which means there are only three receivers running routes. Two receivers are running verticals at the bottom of the screen. That leaves the middle of the field wide open for Howard to make a move and give his quarterback a target.
If Howard continues to work towards the middle of the field, then he gives himself the opportunity to be a target with plenty of room to use that freakish to run. However, he stands in the same spot and let's himself be covered by the trailing cornerback which forces Hurts to take a sack. There's no guarantee that Hurts would have completed the pass if Howard ran towards the middle of the field, but Howard needs to take that space and help his quarterback out.
A huge plus to Howard's game is his ability as a run blocker and a pass blocker. Steve Sarkisian played to these strengths by keeping Howard on the line of scrimmage in six and seven man protection schemes.
In the stretch and outside zone game (staples of Atlanta's offense last season), Howard excelled at driving his man off the line of scrimmage and into no man's land where he couldn't make a play on the ball. Alabama had success running behind Howard all season long.
Howard's athleticism and willingness to block makes him a nuisance on the second level for defensive backs and Sarkisian utilized those skills perfectly on this big run by Damien Harris.
O.J Howard is a fine tight end prospect, but the top 10-15 hype is a little bit confusing. What if he's there at #31, though? When Atlanta goes to their two tight end packages under Steve Sarkisian, having a tight end who can stretch the field would really open up the offense.
Howard's skill set makes him the ideal running mate for Austin Hooper. Hooper showed the ability to make tough, contested catches as the season went along. He was further along in that area of his game at Stanford than Howard is right now.
Following the media hype through "big draft" makes it unlikely that Howard will be on the board for the 31st pick, but if he does fall that far and the Falcons shore up the defensive line in free agency it taking him wouldn't be a bad selection. Steve Sarkisian worked with Howard all throughout his senior season and called the type of plays he needed to get open against a speedy Clemson defense, and he may be able to duplicate that at the NFL level.