Let me say this up front: I’m no film expert. We have guys at this site and analysts out there on the internet that do an amazing job of breaking down plays, calling them by their fancy names (scissors concept?) and explaining what went right or wrong on film.
That said, one play jumped out at me and likely everyone else who watched the game on Thursday night for all the wrong reasons. You know the play. Tajae Sharpe and Russell Gage collided in the middle of the field in what looked like a scene from a poorly-written sports comedy. Anyone who saw it knew it was the embodiment of the dysfunction of this offense right now. I mentioned during the game that one of the receivers had to have run the wrong route, and Mike Rothstein from ESPN confirmed that with head coach Arthur Smith.
Falcons HC Arthur Smith on the play where Russell Gage & Tajae Sharpe ran into each other -- Smith said one of the players (he, not surprisingly, wouldn't say which) ran the wrong route depth.— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) November 19, 2021
Here’s the thing, though: I think if executed properly, this play would have worked. Not only that, I believe it could have turned into a touchdown. The hilarity of the outcome of the play is masking that this was a well-designed play, called at the right time but executed poorly. Let’s break down what I think was supposed to happen.
First, you can check out how the play turned out here:
I've watched this play multiple times this morning and still am unsure what was supposed to happen.— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) November 19, 2021
Shame for the Falcons is both Sharpe & Gage ended up beating their man on the play so they were open. https://t.co/AuJnKXA3MM
I believe Russell Gage (14) was the primary receiver and he’s in motion at the snap. Tajae Sharpe (4) is wide to the right and his route is likely supposed to be flatten around the first down line. Kyle Pitts (8) is out to the left and is a big part of this play. The Patriots didn’t want Pitts to beat them and you can see in the initial alignment that the high safety - Devin McCourty (32) - is off-center, cheating towards where Pitts is at. Pitts is matched up with S Kyle Dugger (23), which is a favorable matchup for the young tight end, though Dugger is good in coverage and fared well against Pitts on Thursday night.
I’ve seen some suggest that this was a Yankee concept, but I don’t think that’s accurate. In that play design, the receiver wide to the left would run the post - which would be Pitts. However, since Pitts is going deep down the left sideline, a true over-route by Sharpe would have put both of them in the same part of the field - effectively eliminating a target in that direction, since you’d have 2 receivers and 3 DBs bunched in that area.
I believe Arthur Smith knew in a single-high look that the safety was going to lean towards Pitts. He’s trying to use him as a distraction here to pull the safety towards the left sideline and to open up a vacated secondary for Gage.
At the snap, Gage comes out of motion heading towards the left sideline before cutting back to the right. I believe he was the receiver that ran the correct route on this play. Sharpe runs what looks like an over, but I believe he was supposed to flatten his route more to cut underneath Gage. Funny enough, both Gage and Sharpe had their corners beat (as Mike noted in his tweet above).
For Gage, both CB Myles Bryant (41) and LB Kyle Van Noy (53) began moving towards the left sideline before Gage cut back to the right, giving him a half-step edge on both guys. Olamide Zaccheaus (17) took CB Jalen Mills (2) with him in the shallow cross to open up the middle of the field. Mike Davis (28) rolls out right as an outlet if the play breaks down.
Here’s where the play broke. By the time Van Noy and Mills adjust to the movements, Van Noy is a non-factor for Gage and Bryant has been beat. However at this point, the ball has already come out due to pressure up the middle. This is the first break. I believe this ball was intended to come out a half-second later, but the pressure forced an early throw. The second break was the route Sharpe ran. Instead of an over, I believe he was supposed to flatten his route more at the 29 yard line, forcing his corner J. C. Jackson (27) to drive back toward the line of scrimmage. As you can see in the animation, the high safety moved to help bracket Pitts, vacating the middle of the field.
Had this play been executed as intended, Pitts draws the double (which he did). Sharpe flattens his route and cuts under Gage, also potentially picking Bryant (41) and forcing Jackson to stick with him as his route moves towards the left sideline - an area Pitts has just vacated. Gage, having beat Bryant, has a lot of field ahead of him with no additional safety help over the top. Ryan gets the extra half-second in the pocket and hits Gage deep right. With no safety help and his corner already beat, Gage likely picks up a large chunk of yards and potentially goes in for the touchdown.
I wanted to focus on this play because it tells a more complex story of what’s going on with the Falcons offense right now than just “Arthur Smith isn’t calling the right plays” or “this offense has no talent.” The play call was well designed and called at the perfect time. Arthur Smith did a good job here, even if the outcome on the field makes us think otherwise. It ends up looking bad because of a pocket that collapsed too quickly and a receiver not running the right route. Again, I don’t know with certainty that Sharpe is to blame, but based on how this played out, I think it makes the most sense. Either way, something broke here.
The Falcons offense is struggling right now but there’s reason to believe it won’t continue forever. If the team can clean up on their mental errors and execution, plays like this will be a lot of fun to watch instead of being the comedy fodder and part of the depressing outcome it turned into.