Under Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons have slowly but surely added a stream of talent on both sides of the ball. We’re all very familiar with the rising young stars on defense, primarily added through the draft: Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and others. On offense, many of their biggest names have been acquired in free agency or via trade: Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu, Andy Levitre.
Recently, we’ve seen more young players on offense begin to stand out. Tevin Coleman is one of the NFL’s best receiving backs. Austin Hooper is a solid, well-rounded starter at TE with the potential for more growth. Wes Schweitzer, while not currently a world-beater at guard, started the entire 2017 season and didn’t torpedo the offense—which is pretty darn good for a 6th round pick.
Thus far in training camp, we’ve heard nothing but praise for two recent offensive draft picks. If these two players can turn this training camp hype into productive seasons in 2018, the Falcons could have incredible personnel flexibility on offense—perhaps even more so than in 2016. The two players I’m talking about are rookie WR Calvin Ridley, and 2017 5th-round TE Eric Saubert.
As a first round pick, Ridley was always going to be under the microscope this offseason. We’ve seen that have both positive and negative effects on players, but in this case Ridley seems to be thriving under the spotlight. There seems to already be a strong connection between Matt Ryan and Ridley. Ridley has remarked upon his good relationship with Julio Jones, who has been mentoring the young WR.
Ridley’s biggest strength coming out was his polish and route running ability. Those skills have been on display during the first practices of training camp, as Ridley has acclimated quickly to the offense. While he had a bad day at the Combine, Ridley still posted a lightning-quick 4.43 40-yard dash time. He’s dangerous at all levels of the field, and provides the Falcons with the truly versatile WR3 that they’ve lacked for some time.
Saubert has also been turning heads during the early portions of training camp. After a quiet rookie season that was spent almost entirely on the sidelines, Saubert has been a walking highlight reel in camp. He’s finally been able to show off his fantastic physical talent, and his rapport with Matt Ryan appears quite strong. It’s easy to forget, but Saubert actually tested out as the most similar TE to Rob Gronkowski in the NFL, accoring to MockDraftable (they were an 82.5% match). While Saubert isn’t likely to reach that kind of ceiling, he has the athletic gifts to be a difference maker.
The biggest question mark with Saubert—outside of whether or not he could ever acclimate to the NFL after spending his entire college career in the Pioneer League at Drake University—is about his blocking ability. He’s got the size and stature to be serviceable there—6’5, 253—but was almost never asked to block in college. Whether or not Saubert can contribute on downs that require him to block will be the biggest obstacle to serious playing time for the sophomore TE.
If we add these two young weapons to the Falcons already-stacked arsenal, it’s easy to come up with an offensive gameplan that can take advantage of virtually any weakness. Whether that weakness is pass rush, run defense, weak or inexperienced CBs, or LBs that struggle in coverage, Sarkisian has all the tools he needs to craft an offense that can exploit them. Of course, it’s yet to be seen if Sarkisian is truly capable of conducting an offense like this, but we’ll hope for the best.
Buckle up as we take an in-depth look at some of the formations the Falcons might be able to roll out with their plethora of offensive weapons.
By “standard”, I mean formations that the Falcons will probably utilize most often and in common situations. All statistics are taken from Sharp Football Stats.
11 Personnel (1RB/1TE/3WR)
A versatile personnel package that the Falcons can utilize on virtually any down and distance. Expect 11 to become an even bigger part of the Falcons plans on offense going forward.
11 personnel, the most common form of 3WR sets, is by far the most widely used offensive formation in the modern NFL. It comprises 59% of all plays run in the league, with a handful of teams running it more than 70% of the time and the Los Angeles Rams utilizing it on a whopping 81% of their plays. The Falcons were actually among the teams that ran 11 personnel the least—Atlanta utilized the formation on only 50% of snaps, good for 25th in the NFL.
11 is popular because it is versatile. It allows you to have three WRs on the field and generally forces the defense to play nickel, while giving the offense an extra pass or run blocker in the TE (as well as another potential receiving target) and the flexibility of an RB in the backfield. While the Falcons lacked an impact WR3 in 2017—Taylor Gabriel was very good at a few specific things, but couldn’t run the full route tree and was too small to work in the short area of the field—the addition of Calvin Ridley likely means a lot more 11 personnel looks on offense.
This grouping gives the Falcons a one-on-one look against the CB opposite Julio—who will almost always draw safety help wherever he lines up. Whether it’s Mohamed Sanu or Calvin Ridley, they’ll have an opportunity for a big play. It also opens up an opportunity for a running play against a nickel defense, so don’t be surprised to see the best blocking TE of the bunch take plenty of snaps as well.
12 Personnel (1RB/2TE/2WR)
A historically run-heavy formation, 12 personnel gets plenty of extra blockers on the field. Modern offenses have adapted the formation for play-action and the use of multiple receiving TEs to some success.
The second most widely-used offensive personnel grouping for both the NFL (19% of snaps) and the Falcons (21% of snaps), 12 has historically been a more run-heavy approach that has undergone some creative changes in the modern era. In particular, teams with multiple dual-threat options at TE can use the formation as an effective vehicle for play-action passes. It just so happens that with Saubert emerging, Atlanta could have two legitimate pass-catching threats at TE for the first time in awhile.
12 personnel forces the defense to play base, and will generally bring more players into the box. Depending on the particular alignment, 12 can be used to create a strongside/weakside play or a more balanced look like the one above. Julio Jones is, as usual, likely to draw safety help, leaving the other WR in a one-on-one situation. Depending on the match-up, the Falcons might prefer Ridley’s long speed and big play ability, or Sanu’s size and physicality. Either way, that WR will have a significant opportunity.
This grouping might also be a good attack against defenses that lack quality cover LBs. With three on the field, one of Hooper, Saubert, or Freeman/Coleman should be a considerable mismatch against all but the most talented of LB corps. Having the two TEs also allows for additional run blocking personnel in short yardage, and pass blocking personnel in max-protect situations. This was actually the most successful formation for the Falcons in 2017, with a 53% success rate overall and a whopping 64% success rate on passing downs.
21 Personnel (2RB/1TE/2WR)
A run-heavy package that calls upon a FB and a blocking TE. Generally reserved for early downs and short-yardage situations.
The only other formation the Falcons utilized more than 5% of the time, 21 personnel is the calling card of old school run-heavy offensive attacks and is the third most popular grouping in the NFL (7% of snaps). It features a FB and a TE and forces the opposing defense into a base package. Atlanta used 21 approximately 16% of the time, which was the 4th-most of any team in the NFL.
This formation is best used against teams that can’t stop the run, even if they know it’s coming. For teams that utilize a lot of play-action, you can pass successfully out of it as well. Like a lot of run-heavy looks that force an opposing defense to play base, you can often get a 1-on-1 match-up with your WR2 while the defense concentrates more players around the box.
When the Falcons had one of the best FBs in the NFL in Patrick DiMarco—we miss you, buddy—it made sense for the team to utilize him often. We saw DiMarco used in creative ways, both as a receiver and a blocker, during Kyle Shanahan’s tenure. In 2017, we saw what the formation looked like without a true difference maker at the position (and a genius offensive coordinator): pretty average. Unless Luke McNitt is truly impressive at FB, expect the team to move away from this package in favor of more 11 personnel looks.
Specialized formations are any other personnel groupings that the Falcons might utilize. They’re unlikely to take up more than 5% of the offensive snaps, but they could be useful for certain situations or to take advantage of mismatches.
22 Personnel (2RB/2TE/1WR)
22 personnel is an uncommon formation utilized on only about 4% of all offensive snaps in the NFL. It is most often used as a short-yardage run play, with a ton of extra blockers including 2 TEs and a FB.
22 personnel is most commonly used as a short-yardage specialty formation, but that’s not how I’d use it if I were the Falcons. Having two RBs and two TEs forces the defense into a base package. Those base package defenders can sometimes be exploited in the passing game, however, particularly if you have talented pass catchers at RB and TE.
In the above mock scenario, the Falcons line up Tevin Coleman in the slot as a quasi-WR and split Eric Saubert out wide. Personnel-wise, this makes things very difficult for the defense. Julio will, as always, demand safety help. Coleman is a match-up problem for most LBs. The 6’5 Saubert would be a mismatch for all but the biggest CBs, forcing defenses to decide if they want to substitute for another LB (which would be the fourth on the field) or a third safety.
That’s all ignoring that the Falcons could simply run the ball, as well. This formation could provide a lot of potential for Atlanta, as it can morph from a run-heavy package to a 3 or even 4 receiver package with the snap of a finger. Despite the Falcons only using 22 on 3% their plays and only passing 16% of the time in those sets, the team posted a 60% success rate on those passes and 2 TDs on only 5 attempts.
20 Personnel (2RB/0TE/3WR)
20 is an unusual formation that has the appearance of a pass-friendly personnel grouping while utilizing two RBs.
A rare sight in the NFL as a whole—utilized on only 1% of all offensive snaps—20 personnel is a unique formation generally reserved for teams that have two quality receiving backs. The Falcons used 20 on only 4% of their plays, but that mark was second in the entire NFL behind only the Texans (7%). When you have a talent like Tevin Coleman on the roster, it makes sense for the team to use him more often as a designated receiver.
The scenario presented above provides potential 1-on-1 opportunities for Sanu, Ridley, Coleman, and Freeman. Julio is likely to draw safety help to his side, leaving the other safety with a choice: play the run and stay close to the box, or provide help to the CBs. If he plays the box, Sanu and Ridley have a ton of space to work in. If he plays coverage, Freeman has a 1-on-1 against a LB and there is nobody left to spy Matt Ryan.
Play-action could be particularly deadly here, as Ryan can have an easy read to determine where to put the ball. If the SS takes a step towards the box, Ryan could keep the ball and throw it. If the SS takes a step back in coverage, Ryan could simply hand it off, or complete the fake and run himself. I love the versatility that this formation provides, and would love to see the Falcons roll it out more often in 2018.
As you can see, the Falcons truly have the personnel to create problems for all but the most talented and well-rounded of defenses. The formations listed above are just a few examples of the types of formations that Atlanta could deploy to take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses. This truly might be the most versatile and dangerous group of weapons that the Falcons have ever had. Those weapons, combined with a top-5 QB in Matt Ryan and what looks to be an above-average offensive line, should provide the potential for another elite season on offense.
Talent doesn’t appear to be the issue any longer. It’s all up to Steve Sarkisian to figure out how to best utilize all these pieces, and put together an offensive scheme that can pick apart a defense’s weaknesses. After all, that’s why Dan Quinn was interested in hiring Kyle Shanahan in the first place—you can bet that he expects that same style from Sarkisian as well.
What do you think of the above personnel groupings? Do you have any formations or packages in mind for the Falcons’ offense? Who are some players on offense that you see having a major impact in 2018?