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The Falcons must deploy their weapons more effectively

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Through four games in 2019, we’ve seen a Falcons offense that has struggled to produce points—particularly in the first half. Why is the Falcons offense stuck in the mud, despite the abundance of talent? The answer: a scheme that fails to deploy those weapons effectively.

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Out of all of the disappointment that Falcons fans have already endured this season, there’s one thing that stands out. It’s not the crushing loss of Keanu Neal, or the lackluster play of the defense, or even the fact that the team is 1-3 heading into Week 5. No, the biggest disappointment thus far has been the offensive ineptitude that the Falcons have shown—particularly in the first half.

We spent all offseason drooling over the abundance of weapons at the Falcons disposal. Atlanta has the best WR trio in the league, a rising star at TE, an MVP at QB, and an offensive line that just received a huge injection of talent in the form of two free agent signings and two first-round picks. At the very least, we expected a top-10 unit.

Through four games, the Falcons haven’t even approached those heights outside of a second-half surge against the mediocre Colts defense. The Falcons are currently 26th in scoring, tied with the Joe Flacco-led Broncos and far behind three teams starting backup QBs in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and Carolina. Atlanta has managed only 20 points in the first half through four games, falling into double-digit deficits three times.

What has happened to this once-promising unit? Who, or what, is to blame for the first-half struggles? The answer: a predictable offensive scheme that fails to effectively deploy the Falcons weapons. But don’t just take my word for it, let’s break it down by checking out the stats.

The Falcons’ top 3 WRs are not on the field enough

Based on the construction of the roster, this is clearly an offense that is designed to be run through the WR corps. More specifically, through the Falcons’ elite WR trio of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu. Atlanta has invested an absurd amount of resources into making this unit the best in the league, and it should be.

Julio Jones is the NFL’s highest paid receiver and the best in the league at his position. Calvin Ridley is a 2018 first-round pick and is coming off an excellent rookie season that showcased his quality route running and downfield speed. Mohamed Sanu is one of the highest paid WR3s in the NFL with a $7.65M cap hit in 2019, and is a physical target capable of lining up all over the field.

There’s no question that the talent is there, and we’ve seen this trio play very effectively together in 2018. Naturally, we’d expect to see this unit be the emphasis of the offense. The data, however, shows that hasn’t quite been the case through four games.

On average, the Falcons top-3 WRs have played 76.9% of snaps. That may sound like a lot, but when comparing the number to other top receivers and offenses, it lags behind significantly. Below is a quick comparison of the percentage of snaps played among top WRs and offenses that feature multiple receivers.

Percentage of Snaps Played through Week 4:

Atlanta Falcons

Julio Jones: 74.6%

Calvin Ridley: 72.7%

Mohamed Sanu: 83.4%

Los Angeles Rams

Robert Woods: 96.7%

Cooper Kupp: 93.8%

Brandin Cooks: 92.9%

Houston Texans

DeAndre Hopkins: 96.4%

Will Fuller: 94.8%

Cleveland Browns

Odell Beckham Jr.: 96.7%

Jarvis Landry: 99.0%

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Mike Evans: 88.2%

Chris Godwin: 94.3%

As you can see, the Falcons WR trio is lagging far behind comparable offenses in percentage of snaps played. That’s even more puzzling when you consider that Atlanta’s trio is probably the most talented of all. It’s an inexcusable schematic mistake when you take into account the resources poured into the position group.

Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu should be playing at least 85% of the offensive snaps. I can’t think of any good reason to limit them any more than that, and honestly, both Ridley and Sanu should probably be pushing 90%. Julio, who is now getting a little older, may benefit from a slightly lesser workload—but having your elite star WR on the field for less than 3/4s of the plays is offensive malpractice.

The closest comparable offense, at least in terms of WR talent, is probably the Rams. It’s amazing how large the disparity is between Atlanta and Los Angeles in terms of the snaps played by their top 3 WRs. The Rams trio plays an average of 94.5% snaps per game, compared to the Falcons 76.9%. That’s nearly a 20% difference in snaps played, and it can certainly be argued that Atlanta’s WRs are more talented than the Rams. I should probably also mention that Los Angeles is currently 6th in the NFL in scoring with 29.2 points/game, compared to Atlanta’s 17.5 points/game (T-26th).

There’s clearly a lot that goes into scoring on offense, and this is just one variable. But the difference is striking.

Speaking of things the Rams do better on offense than the Falcons, let’s talk about personnel groupings.

The Falcons aren’t utilizing 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) personnel frequently enough

When you look at this Falcons offense and the weapons they have at their disposal, one personnel grouping stands out immediately: 11—1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR—often simply referred to as a “3 WR set”. On paper, this grouping puts all of Atlanta’s top talents on the field together:

WR1: Julio Jones
WR2: Calvin Ridley
WR3: Mohamed Sanu
TE: Austin Hooper
RB: Devonta Freeman (or Ito Smith, if that’s your fancy)

11 is by far the most popular personnel grouping in the NFL, and has taken on an even greater prominence in recent years. The Rams famously used 11 on almost 90% of plays during their Super Bowl run in 2018, and they’ve been leading the charge in this area. While 11 is generally thought of as a “passing set”, college offenses and the Rams themselves have proven that you can run very effectively out of 11. Los Angeles averaged 5.2 YPC out of 11 personnel in 2018 (with an impressive 59% success rate).

The reason? Defenses are spread out, forced to play a third CB (aka a nickel package), and have no idea if the play will be run or pass. That last part is a commonly-overlooked aspect of offensive success, but it’s a key one. As an offense, one of your biggest advantages over the defense is that you know exactly what the play will be, while your opponent does not. Offenses that give up this advantage by telegraphing their play—using “heavy” sets, taking your top WRs off the field, etc—usually find a lot less success. This goes for both running and passing, which is part of the reason why a third-and-long is such a challenge for an offense.

The Rams offense is, of course, the one to emulate right now in the NFL. With Atlanta’s personnel decisions—namely, bringing in 3 top-tier WRs—it seemed that the Falcons intended to move towards an 11 personnel-focused scheme. Looking at the numbers, however, shows that...they didn’t.

In 2018, for starters, Atlanta ran 11 personnel on only 60% of snaps. That may sound like a lot at first glance, but it was actually 23rd in the NFL. That is embarrassingly low for a team that made such a heavy investment in three WRs. But it was Ridley’s rookie season, and perhaps the team needed a season to adjust after previously spending a healthy percentage of snaps in both 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) under Shanahan and Sarkisian.

So far in 2019, you’ll see that the team has run more 11 personnel—but still not nearly enough. Here’s a breakdown of the four personnel groupings the Falcons have used most frequently in 2019. I pulled these numbers from the excellent Sharp Football Stats site, which I heartily recommend you take a look at.

Offensive Personnel Frequency:

11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR): 68%

Pass/Run Frequency: 84%/16%

YPA: 7.2

YPC: 4.4

TD/INT: 8/3

Success Rate Pass/Run: 48%/43%

12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR): 15%

Pass/Run Frequency: 55%/45%

YPA: 8.2

YPC: 5.5

TD/INT: 0/2

Success Rate Pass/Run: 57%/59%

21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR): 8%

Pass/Run Frequency: 48%/52%

YPA: 11.3

YPC: 4.0

TD/INT: 0/0

Success Rate Pass/Run: 90%/55%

22 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR): 4%

Pass/Run Frequency: 9%/91%

YPA: 0.0

YPC: 1.0

TD/INT: 0/1

Success Rate Pass/Run: 0%/30%

There’s a lot to process with those numbers, and I’m not going to get to every facet in this piece. They are there for your perusal. However, for a team that’s been designed—from a roster standpoint—to dominate out of 11 personnel, they haven’t. They also haven’t run the personnel grouping enough to justify all the investment made into their WR trio.

The Falcons run 11 on 68% of snaps—an improvement over 2018, but only a slight one—which puts them squarely at league average (14th overall). However, part of the point of making 11 your base package on offense is keeping your opponent off balance by mixing in both rushing attempts and passing attempts. The Falcons have basically refused to do this in 2019, with an incredibly lopsided 84%/16% pass/run ratio. By passing the vast majority of the time out of 11 personnel, Atlanta has thrown away a key advantage. In a set that should be ambiguous and keep the defense guessing, the Falcons are simply throwing the ball.

Now, the Falcons should pass the majority of the time in 11. That’s the strength of the offense. But something like 70%/30% would likely be a lot more effective—the Rams, for instance, are currently at 65%/35% in 2019.

While the Falcons are far too pass-heavy out of 11, the opposite is true in another personnel grouping. In 22 personnel (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR), often referred to as a “heavy” set or “goal line” package, Atlanta has compiled a pass/run ratio of 9%/91%. On 10 rushing attempts—which have often been in very important situations, such as a notable 4th and 1 against the Titans—the Falcons have mustered a 1.0 YPC average. On the lone pass, Matt Ryan threw an INT.

Now, before we get too crazy about 22 personnel, keep in mind the Falcons have only run it on 4% of offensive plays (11 total). This isn’t a major part of the offense. But it has been deployed in major situations, like the aforementioned 4th and 1 that was stuffed. The moral of the story is: don’t telegraph your plays to the opponent. When the defense knows what’s coming, it’s so much easier to stop.

If you want to see what keeping your opponent guessing looks like, the Falcons have shown how effective it can be. Take a look at their success running 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) personnel, and their pass/run frequencies. In 12, the Falcons are a very balanced 55% pass, 45% run. In 21, they’re even more balanced at 48% pass, 52% run. Atlanta has a 58% overall success rate in 12, and a 71% overall success rate in 21. Keep in mind also that Ryan has thrown two INTs and 0 TDs in 12 (out of 38 total plays) and the numbers are still positive.

I’ve got news for you. It’s not the personnel that’s making those formations more successful than 11. I guarantee you the presence of TE Luke Stocker or FB Keith Smith is not the difference. It’s the balance and ambiguity that the offense creates when they aren’t telegraphing their play. Opposing defenses know it’s going to be a pass when the Falcons come out in 11, and they know it’s going to be a run when Atlanta comes out in 22. When the team is in 12 and 21, it’s an open question.

Which brings me to my next point...

The offense is incredibly vanilla, and far too predictable

Dirk Koetter has never been known as a brilliant offensive mind. He’s been the architect of some good offenses, but they’ve always been contingent on having a lot of talent. His 2012 unit in Atlanta, which was arguably his best, had a Hall of Fame TE in Tony Gonzalez along with prime Julio Jones and Roddy White. But his offenses were always vanilla, “go out and beat your man” affairs. Sooner or later, smart defenses would adjust—which is exactly what happened in the 2012 NFC Championship and in countless other games. Koetter has also never been able to coordinate an effective rushing attack.

Fast forward to 2019, and opponents aren’t even needing to adjust to Atlanta’s offense. They’re coming out and shutting it down from the very beginning, and it’s the Falcons who have to adjust to get anything going. Atlanta has managed an absolutely atrocious 20 points in the first half through four games. For an offense with elite skill position talent, an MVP QB, and an offensive line that really isn’t that bad, that’s inexcusable.

The fact of the matter is that Koetter’s offense is stale. Teams saw it for years in Atlanta, then for years in Tampa Bay. It’s the same, except now they throw in a few bootlegs for Ryan to give it that “Shanahan feel”. But gone are the important parts of Shanahan’s scheme: the creative, brilliant route combinations. The perfectly executed rub routes. The sneaky plays to the FB and TE, who leak out of the formation unnoticed because opponents didn’t know if it was a run or pass.

All the Falcons had to do was watch the 2016 tape, keep those plays in the playbook, and use them in a semi-competent manner. They didn’t need to re-invent the wheel, they didn’t need a major change. Sure, you need to keep growing and advancing as an offense, but all the stuff that worked for you in 2016 didn’t need to get thrown out.

Here we are, in 2019, and the last vestiges of that historic offense have all but disappeared. It’s honestly sad to see a more talented Falcons roster—particularly on offense—struggle to put up 10 points at home. Sure, the players need to execute better. Ryan has to cut down on the dumb turnovers. The running game has to get going. The offensive line needs to stop getting hurt. The penalties have to stop. But at the end of the day, the real issue is the scheme.

Koetter had a golden opportunity to come to Atlanta, take control of a Shanahan-esque offense, and use it to make his elite weapons even better. Instead, he’s bogged down an offense with the best WR trio in the league, an MVP QB, and a rising star at TE in a vanilla scheme that every defense in the NFL has apparently figured out.

Julio, Ridley, and Sanu should be able to beat their man, 1-on-1, with regularity. They will, given enough opportunity. But they shouldn’t have to. Shanahan took an offense that featured Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson, and Jacob Tamme and turned it into the best that the NFL had ever seen. Koetter has taken more talent and turned it into an unwatchable mess.

Although we expected the defense to be better, it isn’t entirely shocking that they’ve struggled. What is shocking is the incredible offensive ineptitude we’ve witnessed thus far. There’s no excuses left for Quinn and Koetter—and only a handful of games to fix these issues. The good news is that none of them are all that difficult to address—but the question is, will they?

So far, I’m not convinced.