I will kick this whole thing off by saying this, the NFL is a giant copycat league. Some people are more gifted than others when it comes to scheme though. In the NFL of 2022 an amazing thing is happening. The rules of the NFL have changed to favor the offense. That caused the NFL defense to adjust. They did so by becoming more multiple with their players and alignments, and also run out of more 3-4 and Nickle sets. This is currently making NFL offenses adjust to their adjustments. Thus, this article is born (que curtain opening).
When Arthur Smith came to town, he brought with him Dean Pees. Now, this hasn't been the most advantageous situation for the team thus far. With a litany of problems to address after a losing season, hopes are not high. Digging out of a historically bad cap situation (most dead cap in NFL history), and losing Matt Ryan who is the teams long-time leader put the front office into full rebuild mode. For better or worse, the 2022 Atlanta Falcons are in strange territory for the first time in over a decade. The team is only in year two of a totally new offense, with a new QB, and year two of a new defense with what feels like an all new defensive roster. They are turning over a new leaf, and where that leads them remains to be seen (que ominous and mysterious music).
With so much unknown and everything seemingly new, fans are for a lack of better words...hesitant. What most fans are itching to find out is mainly one thing. Who are we now? Without Matt Ryan are we a ground and pound team? Without a solid rudder on defense are we still floundering on defense? Are we a 3-4 defense or a Nickle base defense? Do we run the WCO or a zone scheme on offense? What in the heck are we doing this year? Well the nature of a copycat league tells you exactly who we are.
On offense we are in short, an outside zone blocking team running the copy of a copy of a copy of the Mike Shanahan offense he created after leaving Bill Walsh and the 49ers and going to Denver. Mike Shanahan created the zone blocking scheme to be the predecessor of the West Coast Offense (WCO). It took the WCO, and changed the offensive linemans blocking assignments to make it more favorable for big runs on the perimeter. It had great success. John Elway and Terrell Davis should thank the heavens Shanahan came to town with his playbook in hand. That team left a mark on a young Kyle Shanahan. It also left a mark on many other coaches around the league. Notably two of which is Matt LeFleur and Sean McVay. These days McVay, Shanahan, and Lefleur are running some of the most diverse offenses in the league, many times head to head. They are leaving their mark and time is marching on. With that time comes new coaches to come up with new iterations of the schemes that they themselves made new from old schemes of coaches past (Arthur Smith enters stage right).
The offense you see in Atlanta today is a direct descendent of the Mike Shanahan Super Bowl teams in the mid-to-late 90's. Of course, its not exactly the same. Shanahan used the WCO and simply created a scheme more favorable for big runs. Kyle Shanahan (Atlanta may remember this guy) and Matt LeFleur both grew up watching this and used it in slightly different ways. Shanahan took what dad did and expanded on it. He used speedier backs and more mobile QB's to set up longer throws. The younger Shanahan built the supercharged version of what his dad built years ago. LeFleur took a little of that and brought in the use of heavier TE formations and less 11 personnel, but more 12 and 13 personnel. McVay took it and utilized the QB's differently allowing them to change the play as it unfolds, rather than scheming everything before the game and holding to it. Each brought something new. They all share the same basics. A mobile QB, behind a offensive line that works as a team to get the defense moving, and creating cut back lanes or room on the perimeter for RB's to take advantage of on run downs, or play-action or bootleg options downfield on throwing downs. The newest variations use pre-snap motions to help the QB diagnose the defense pre-snap, and player alignments to create mismatches. So what's new? Well Arthur Smith can answer that (que Arthur Smith clearing his throat).
Arthur Smith learned this offense from the aforementioned Matt LeFleur. LeFleur and Kyle Shanahan grew up with Mike Shanahan and both are the torch-bearers of his offense. What LeFleur changed about it, Arthur Smith ran with. Of course, Smith then got a hold of Derrick Henry and made him a superstar with the system, but less notably he got a hold of Ryan Tannehill and made him a solid game manager. So, what did Arthur do differently? Arthur Smith learned two things from LeFleur. First, is how to utilize TE's and pre-snap motion to help the QB and RB. Second, he learned how to utilize large WR's to overcome the inherent flaws of the system. You see, there is one major flaw of the oZB scheme that must be overcome. On many plays, the QB MUST be on the move when throwing. A statue in the backfield struggles more because the blocking scheme in front of them is meant to leave running lanes. When LB's find those lanes, and they will, the QB better move. A moving QB is less accurate than a stationary QB, and thus the quandary. How do you overcome that? You get a WR who has big long arms and good hands. Throw it anywhere near him and he will go get it (Corey Davis, AJ Brown, Drake London). What you are left with is a can't miss target, with the added bonus of being able to block downfield due to the size mismatch on the CB's that cover them. So Coach Smith took the TE heavy pre-snap motion oZB scheme and now has supercharged it. He has a scheme that uses heavy everything. Its got huge players everywhere. The o-line is bigger than other oZB o-lines. The WR's are bigger than other WR's with the same scheme. The RB's are bigger and can bulldoze a hole in the line when a lane isn't apparent. Most importantly, the QB can escape the pocket and get the ball to a WR downfield effectively. Run plays have blocking at the o-line and beyond. Even 15 yards downfield they have solid blocking. Pass plays have a QB without a defender in the QB's face because he is on the move, and at least one receiver who is open, even if he isn't. Its the newest version of the oZB scheme built on power (que resounding crowd appraisal).
So, with the new power based oZB scheme provided by Arthur Smith we have a new identity on offense. There is one issue though. While it is seen as the most QB friendly system on the field today, we don't have a proven QB. In fact, when Smith took over in Tennessee, Mariota got benched. So what is with the confidence from Arthur Smith? Well, this is the first time the Arthur Smith has had the opportunity to craft a team, from the ground up. Every single player on this offense is who Arthur Smith wants, or fits his scheme. That is huge. Mariota was benched early when Smith took over the Tennessee offense, but he was already struggling with injury, and was showing signs of the NFL becoming too much for him. His athleticism made him a natural fit, but his arm strength was limited and his injuries made him absent for too long. Now in Atlanta, he has a team built to help, plus time spent to fully recover and learn. The biggest issue still remains the offensive line, but with the addition of Drake London to an already towering Kyle Pitts, we should have multiple opportunities for the QB to work through progressions and find a target to throw to while moving. His added mobility now forces teams to count him as a runner, not just a QB. Thus bringing Safeties down into the box and turning the two high safety looks that are growing in popularity into one high Safety looks. This is advantageous to runners when looking for cutback lanes, and should prove to be another piece in making a quality run game out of the ashes of a failed team in years past. It is also helpful in the pass game.
Think about Mariota being able to fake a run to Patterson on the outside, but cut back for a naked bootleg instead and have both London and Pitts covered downfield. London covered by a hyper athletic CB, and Pitts covered by a big lumbering LB. The ball gets out to Pitts, and London now blocks the little CB with no issue. Turning the 10 yard throw into a 30 yard YAC play based on misdirection and power. Now the same play, but its a run. Patterson takes the ball and finds a small lane. He runs through one arm tackle at the line, but downfield Pitts and London are already blocking a LB and CB, who would be tacklers otherwise. Patterson takes what would be a short run stopped after 3 or 4 yards, and carries it downfield for a first down and a 10 yard gain. This is your new offense.
Put it all together, and you get something new and different. If it works, prepare for the the league to take notice. This would be the predecessor to the Mike Shanahan-->Matt LeFleur-->Arthur Smith zone blocking scheme tree. It would be a mammoth team who wins with scheme and power. Blocking isn't done at the line. Its done everywhere. TE's and WR's are just as necessary for the run game as the RB's and offensive line. The pass game becomes an extension of the run game, and TE's are heavily involved with that as well. The team doesn't rely on any given player to be phenomenal, it just relies on every player to be good enough. We win with every player executing their piece, and the success of that piece relying on this team exerting its will on the opposing player. Past meet future (que Arthur Smith confidently walking off stage and curtains drawn)(que intermission...).
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