It didn’t take long for the Falcons to come under pressure and fire for their performance in 2017. The offense was under scrutiny for their tame showing against Chicago. With only two explosive plays coming from a coverage bust and Austin Hooper’s stiff-arm, everything felt lackluster. Two big plays weren’t going to cut it against Green Bay’s high-powered offense.
The running game was ineffective against Chicago, but Steve Sarkisian’s play calling felt far too conservative. There wasn’t much variety behind his decisions either. It was time to loosen things up and remember what made this offense a dominant unit. That originates from abusing opposing defenses with play action. No team ran more play action than the Falcons did last season. Averaging over 10 yards per play on those snaps provides an easy explanation for their reliance on it. Sarkisian followed that route and called a superb game.
I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are four successful play action plays that resulted in big gains.
First quarter: 2nd and 2 at ATL 44
Ryan will get Julio Jones involved early following a relatively subdued performance. Who can forget his 300-yard game against Carolina, after only catching one pass against New Orleans last season? It wasn’t surprising to see Jones make two big plays on the first drive. Jones has a distinct advantage over Green Bay’s smaller cornerbacks. With his ability to physically overwhelm corners at the line of scrimmage and run past them with his blistering speed, Jones is a matchup nightmare. Damarious Randall doesn’t stand a chance on this play.
As for the design, Sarkisian decided to use the yankee concept. This is a two-receiver deep crossing combo, which has both wide receivers running different routes. Since this is a long developing play, it can only be truly effective when using play action. That gives the quarterback enough time to diagnose everything, along with confusing the linebackers and putting the free safety in a precarious situation. Deploying your fastest wide receivers increases the chances of generating a big play.
Jones and Taylor Gabriel is the fastest receiving combination on the Falcons roster. While Gabriel is running a deep post over the top, Jones goes under on the deep over route. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s deep positioning allows Jones to be the primary target. Shanahan found great success using this concept last season. With play action being an integral part of the Falcons’ offense, this play should be used on a weekly basis.
First quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 13
There are some similarities from the previous play. Atlanta loves using crossing routes on play action. Instead of Jones, Mohamed Sanu is crossing behind the linebackers. Whenever Jones is streaking downfield, he will immediately command the safety’s attention. That creates acres of spaces in the middle of the field. Clinton-Dix faces a lose-lose scenario, as he can’t betray his assignment to cover Sanu. He doesn’t want to let Jones have a one on one matchup. Green Bay doesn’t have the talent to trust their corners against premier wide receivers in man coverage.
With the play action fake, no linebacker picks up Sanu. This is a high percentage play design to give the Falcons some breathing room. It sparked a ten play, 87-yard drive. To have a player like Jones creates countless possibilities for other players to get involved. Sanu benefits on this occasion. The versatile wide receiver had one of his best performances as a Falcon. It took some time, but he seems to have found his niche in the offense. By understanding zone coverage schemes and having reliable hands, Sanu is a valuable piece to the Falcons’ aerial attack.
Second quarter: 2nd and 5 at GB 21
With the efficient running game overwhelming Green Bay’s front seven, Sarkisian continued to utilize play action fakes. One of the best things about Shanahan’s philosophy is his knack for ruthlessly attacking an opposing defense’s flaw. If he recognizes a mismatch, it will be targeted for the entire game. Green Bay’s linebackers already showed signs of looking lost in the first quarter. That allowed Ryan the opportunity to make easy intermediate throws, which wasn’t the case against Chicago.
Justin Hardy runs a solid route for the 19-yard completion. The third-year wide receiver showed nice footwork to create separation. With both linebackers taken out, Ryan gets one of his underrated weapons involved. The personnel alignment is fascinating on this play. Sarkisian uses Derrick Coleman on the outside, which brings back fond memories of Patrick DiMarco lining up outside.
It may seem insignificant, but full backs can cause disruption when being used as a wide receiver. They can be utilized on creative designs to spring their teammate free for a big play. While Coleman didn’t affect the play, it’s promising to see Sarkisian employ his starting full back in a pass catching role. Let’s also praise Jake Matthews for his crushing block on Dean Lowry.
Second Quarter: 2nd and 9 at ATL 45
Sarkisian decided to alter this play. After finding earlier success with it, Jones and Sanu switch roles. Sanu runs a straight go on the right side. Instead of running a straight crosser, Jones’ route is designed to go more vertical. The Packers’ defense is structured to stop the superstar wide receiver. Adding safety support to help rookie Kevin King gives them some hope. That quickly evaporates, as Jones wins with another deep over route. Kentrell Brice appears to be prepared, but instantly loses positioning and can’t keep pace with him.
Out of each play, this is the least complex design. Ryan doesn’t sell the play action fake as aggressively as he normally does. It doesn’t matter in the end. Jones is too explosive and powerful for Green Bay’s secondary. Although Jones wasn’t quite as productive as he was in previous matchups against the Packers, he still made big plays to set up scoring drives. Running play action crossing concepts prevents defenses from executing proper double teams. Sarkisian did an excellent job diversifying his game plan. Not every play needs to feature creative route combinations. With a productive running game, a steady balance of them can translate into several big plays. Sarkisian accomplished that in a fantastic victory.