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Falcons can best attack Lions by going under center with play-action passing

Two tight end sets and under center play action worked for Seattle, and they may well work for Atlanta.

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons passing attack has yet to take flight this season, but they have a great opportunity to get off the ground in their Week 3 matchup against the Detroit Lions.

Atlanta’s aerial attack should be stimulated by their play-action passing. The Falcons increased their usage of play action in last week’s win over the Green Bay Packers, with 16 plays compared to six in their season-opening win versus the Carolina Panthers. That trend should continue against Detroit, thanks to the success that the Seattle Seahawks had against the Lions via their play-action passing in their overtime win in Week 2. According to Pro Football Focus, Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith’s 174 play-action passing yards ranked second in the NFL last week.

After poring through the film, Seattle’s success was thanks to their usage of multiple tight end sets, which is becoming more popular throughout the NFL this season. Smith completed 9 of 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown for an almost perfect passer rating of 152.1 when Seattle used play action in their “12” or “13” personnel groupings. That’s music to the ears of Falcons head coach and play-caller Arthur Smith. Through two weeks, per NFELO, no team has used multiple tight end personnel groupings more than the Falcons, at 56 percent.

Notably, Seattle’s play-action success came primarily while operating under center. The Falcons should also borrow from that same page, since it could lead to other benefits for their offense.

Atlanta has operated much of their offense out of shotgun and pistol thus far in 2023. Last week, 10 of quarterback Desmond Ridder’s 16 play-action pass plays came using either one of those formations. A big factor in why the Falcons have chosen that path is because shotgun and pistol are significant elements in their run game. Play-action passing is obviously meant to mimic a run play before the quarterback eventually passes the ball.

However, what is noteworthy with the Falcons run game is how it differs in both formation and success depending on which running back is in the game. Looking at the play-by-play data, running back Tyler Allgeier has received the majority of his carries while the team is in shotgun or pistol and the table below shows his and Bijan Robinson’s production there:

Falcons rushing (shotgun/pistol vs. under center)

Player Category Attempts Yards Avg TD Success Rate
Player Category Attempts Yards Avg TD Success Rate
Bijan Robinson shotgun/pistol 11 57 5.2 0 63.6
Bijan Robinson under center 18 123 6.8 0 55.6
Tyler Allgeier shotgun/pistol 20 99 5.0 0 50.0
Tyler Allgeier under center 11 24 2.2 2 36.4
Total Designed Runs shotgun/pistol 34 173 5.1 1 55.9
Total Designed Runs under center 30 147 4.9 2 46.7

Meanwhile, Robinson has been pretty productive regardless of the formation, but he has received the bulk of his carries while Ridder is under center. With the team overall being slightly more productive rushing via shotgun or pistol, it’s understandable why the bulk of their play-action passing was built off that look last week. However, due to the Seahawks’ success, this weekend’s matchup versus the Lions might be one where the Falcons lean more on operating from under center.

If Allgeier’s under-center rushing production doesn’t rebound, that could marginalize him somewhat in Sunday’s game plan. But that cost may be outweighed by other benefits to the team. The differences in how defenses play play-action under center versus shotgun sparked a healthy debate early last season on ESPN.

The main benefit of operating under center may be the potential enhancements to the Falcons’ struggling pass protection. With play action, offensive linemen can fire off the ball as if they’re run-blocking, which is an easier sell when under center. That triggers defenders to react based on long-ingrained keys and recognition to defend the run. When defensive linemen are trying to gain leverage against the run, they aren’t trying to get upfield to sack the quarterback. Linebackers also bite harder on the backfield action, potentially opening larger passing windows behind them which the quarterback can exploit.

The Falcons used play action at an extremely high rate throughout the 2022 season for similar benefits, as their pass protection was a concern then too. The main difference was that then-quarterback Marcus Mariota was generally a less effective passer whenever he turned his back to the defense, which is common when using play action from under center. That has been far less of a concern for Ridder in his limited action.

There’s no reason to be too reductive and think that one version of play action is good and the other bad. Hopefully, there are clearer reasons why the Falcons should incorporate both shotgun/pistol and under-center looks in their offense, with pros and cons to both. But leaning a bit more on the under-center stuff could help spark the team’s passing game in this specific matchup against Detroit. Perhaps down the road, there will be matchups where leaning on shotgun and pistol makes more sense.

Having both in the team’s offensive arsenal is valuable. But at least this Sunday, operating more from under center should prove more effective as the Falcons try to move to 3-0 by beating the Lions.