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All-22 Breakdown: Falcons Offense Needs the Vertical Strike

One of the main topics I hit in this past week’s game review and podcast (roughly around the 40-minute mark) was the Falcons inability to stretch the Arizona Cardinal’s defense, and how that must change if the Falcons want to beat the Carolina Panthers this weekend. It’s one thing to read or listen to what I’m seeing, but thanks to the power of screenshots and photo-editing software, I can now show you what I’m talking about.

The Falcons have become a one-dimensional offense thanks to their inability to run the ball effectively. But that hasn’t been a new development in Atlanta, as they were one of the league’s weakest rushing teams a year ago. But they were able to compensate with an efficient passing attack, thanks in part due to the big play potential offered by Julio Jones and Roddy White. A year ago, that pair of receivers combined for 35 catches of 20 or more yards, and 9 catches of 40 or more yards.

While the Falcons generated five 20-plus yard plays against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sans Jones and White, that number fell to two against Arizona. One of the reasons why the Falcons were able to beat the Bucs despite the running backs rushing for a combined 30 yards, was because they were able to generate those big plays in the passing game. The rushing attack only got worse against the Cardinals, with backs combining for a pathetic 14 yards. And without the big plays to compensate, it resulted last Sunday in one of the worst offensive performances of the Falcons and Matt Ryan in years.

I want to outline two plays using screenshots from NFL Game Rewind’s All-22 view to illustrate what I mean by the Falcons inability to get big plays. I think these two plays, if the outcomes are different would have a vastly different impact on the outcome of the Falcons-Cardinals game. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Falcons win the game, but they certainly would have made it much closer and more competitive. And more importantly, moving forward they have to do a better job of taking advantage of similar opportunities when they present themselves.

The first play I want to examine is the very first offensive snap the Falcons had in the second half. Had the Falcons executed on this play as I believe it was drawn up, it certainly would have started the second half with a bang and potentially made the game a one-score game rather than the three-score lead Arizona was able to build shortly after.

Screenshot1

The first screenshot shows the look the Cardinals defense is giving before the snap of the ball. At the top, I’ve highlighted Falcons wide out Darius Johnson, who is matched up against Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers. You can see the single-high safety in Yeremiah Bell (37) at the bottom of the screen. While this might signal Cover-1, the fact that Bell is shaded over Tony Gonzalez, who is lined up in the slot suggests that Powers will be matched up in single coverage on the outside against Johnson without safety help. This is exactly the look that the Falcons want.

Screenshot2

Eventually the problem that happens on this play is that Matt Ryan (circled) stumbles on his drop back, as his feet get tangled somewhat with Steven Jackson. This of course throws off Ryan’s timing on his drop back as now he has to try and recover and get his feet back under him. I’ve also highlighted Patrick DiMarco and Jackson, both of whom are chipping defenders on their way out of the backfield. Releasing into the flat, is Cardinals cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. We’ll get to him later.

Getting back to Johnson and Powers, we can see in this screenshot that Johnson is running a straight go route. Powers, working out of his backpedal, at this point realizes this and is moments before he turns his hips to start to run with Johnson.

Screenshot3

The next screenshot shows that Ryan (circled) has now somewhat recovered and reached the bottom of his drop. He is now looking down the field at Johnson. Powers hasn’t fully made his turn out of his backpedal. This is the moment where Matt Ryan needs to make the decision to throw the ball to Johnson. Since Powers has not transitioned out of his backpedal yet, he’ll have difficulty turning and locating the ball in the air, which by then Johnson will have a step on him. Ryan now has his feet under him, a clean pocket, and has the space to step into the throw.

Screenshot4

Unfortunately, we can now see in this next screenshot that Ryan has taken his eyes off the deep throw. He has now turned his attention to the check down to DiMarco in the flat. It’s the safe, easy decision. I again, highlight Mathieu because he is waiting and hoping for the check down.

As you can see Johnson is now even with Powers, but given the previous screenshots you can tell that means he’s about to run past him.

Screenshot5

In the next screenshot, Ryan has now completed his check down to DiMarco, Mathieu has shot upfield and is in perfect position to make the open-field tackle. Johnson and Powers are no longer in the screen. The end result is a 2-yard gain for the Falcons.

Screenshot6

This is a view from the end zone. You can also see Ryan stumbling on this play at the bottom of the drop (it’s moments before the third screenshot above). The main thing I want to highlight here is Lamar Holmes poor blocking technique. This has nothing to do with this play in particular, but it’s something I’ve seen throughout my game reviews. Holmes is far too overextended on this play trying to get leverage and extension against John Abraham.

You’ve probably read some draft scouting reports and heard scouts say things like “he’s a waist-bender” or “doesn’t bend his knees.” This image perfectly illustrates what a waist-bender looks like. An offensive linemen wants his back to be vertical, essentially in a sitting posture in pass protection because it means you’re more balanced and you have better power. Anybody that has tried to lift weights knows that if you’re bent over, you’re going to wind up in the hospital. This is what we call classic overextension, which now means that all that needs to happen is a subtle move and Holmes is going to topple like Jenga and Abraham will have an easy sack. The only thing that saves Lamar Holmes on this play is DiMarco, who chips Abraham and knocks him off his rush. This gives Holmes the necessary time to recover.

Screenshot7

Which you can now see with Holmes in that he has regained his leverage and now the Falcons offensive line have presented Matt Ryan with a clean pocket. There isn’t a defender within five yards of Ryan, who is still looking downfield at Johnson. But in a moment, he will make the decision to check it down to DiMarco.

The point here is to illustrate that the Falcons need to be more aggressive when presented this look. Had Matt Ryan ripped the deep ball and thrown the ideal pass, it would have resulted in an 80-yard touchdown for Johnson. Even if he had thrown a less than ideal but still catchable pass, it would have been roughly a 50-yard gain. But instead, he went with the safe route, and it ultimately resulted in a 2-yard gain.

Two plays later, Matt Ryan threw his first interception of game. Had the Falcons taken full advantage of this play, the score is potentially 21-13 instead of 24-6 following the field goal off the interception. It’s not an exaggeration that this play could have been a 10-point swing in the favor of the Falcons, but instead went in the favor of the Cardinals.

Now, let’s look at the second play. This comes in the fourth quarter, with 8:30 left in the game on 3rd-and-5. At this point the Falcons are down 27-6.

Screenshot8

Matt Ryan is in shotgun with an empty backfield, and this is the pre-snap look that the Cardinals give him. Linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby along with safety Yeremiah Bell are highlighted. I’ve highlighted Harry Douglas and Darius Johnson for the Falcons, as they are covered by Tyrann Mathieu and Jerraud Powers, respectively.

Screenshot9

Washington, Dansby, and Bell move up to the line of scrimmage indicating blitz. This shows Matt Ryan that there will be Cover-0 (i.e. man coverage against all the receivers). This is perfect because Douglas will be running an out-and-up on this play. Johnson will be running a crossing route over the middle, where he will be essentially picking Mathieu. This play is relying on one main factor, the Falcons have to pick up the blitz that is clearly coming.

Screenshot10

And that’s indeed what the Falcons do. Bell does not blitz and the Cardinals bring six rushers. The Falcons have six blockers as tight end Tony Gonzalez is asked to stay in and help. I’ve highlighted the clean pocket Ryan now has thanks to the blocking in front of him. I’ve highlighted Johnson’s crossing pattern in red and Douglas’ out-and-up route in black to indicate how perfectly these two routes work in conjunction. As you can see, Johnson has done a good job getting in the way of Mathieu.

Screenshot11

This screenshot shows when Matt Ryan has released the throw (highlighted in yellow). Douglas has now released on the vertical or “up” portion of his route.

Screenshot12

This now shows where the ball is (circled in yellow) which is difficult to see on this screenshot as well as the trajectory of the ball of where Ryan has thrown it. You can see Douglas now pulling away from Mathieu. This is not a bad throw, but it’s not the ideal throw either.

This depicts Douglas making the catch. As you can see, he has to adjust to throw which is slightly behind. Again, it’s not a poor throw by Ryan because it’s obviously completed for a big gain. But had Ryan put a bit more air under the ball, Douglas still should be running underneath it rather than having to adjust behind him.

Screenshot14

The final screenshot shows that now that Douglas has to slow down, Mathieu is able to close the distance and make the tackle. That limits the Falcons to a 25-yard gain, which is still a very good play. But had Ryan made a better throw, it’s potentially a touchdown. More than likely it probably isn’t because Mathieu eventually catches up to Douglas, but the point remains that there easily are 15 or more yards to be gained with a better throw.

What eventually happens is the Falcons bleed another four minutes off the clock to score their lone touchdown of the game. Had this play gone for more yardage and resulted in a quicker score, they could have had up to four minutes of additional time on the clock to cut the Cardinals lead even further.

Again, this isn’t a bad play on the Falcons part. It’s a 25-yard gain that is one of the key plays that sets up a Falcons score. But it does somewhat represent a missed opportunity. Because of the less than ideal throw, there’s anywhere between 15 and 50 yards left on the field. And against Carolina, the Falcons must find ways to take better advantage of this opportunity.

It’s no secret that the Falcons pass protection has been iffy throughout this year. But as I noted in my game review, the pass protection against the Cardinals was not bad. Because of the sporadic and unpredictable nature of when the Falcons do provide Ryan good protection, like they did on these two plays, they have to take advantage.

This second play also signifies the difference in how defenses match up to the Falcons. A year ago, it would have taken the biggest pair of cojones on the planet to present Cover-0 with Jones and White on the field. Now, because of the limited fear the Falcons current receivers present, teams won’t be as reluctant to be aggressive in their coverages. Going forward, the Falcons will see a lot more of these looks until Roddy White returns. Again, the Falcons must take advantage and make teams pay.

Unfortunately for Matt Ryan, he’s now in a position where he ostensibly has to be perfect for the Falcons offense. Without Jones and White, he has to elevate his own game to compensate for the lack of weapons on the field. In one instance, he has to be more aggressive and willing to take the deep shot, and in another he has to make a better throw.

This is essentially the transition between being the very good quarterback, which Ryan currently is, and becoming the elite quarterback that everybody in Atlanta is wanting or expecting to see now that he is the $100 million man.

Whether Ryan elevates his game or not will be a huge determining factor for the future of the Falcons offense this season, but also in 2014 and beyond from a front office standpoint. Collectively, the Falcons now possess the league’s least-talented and least-dynamic group of receivers, Gonzalez included. If Ryan is able to elevate his game and make these players functional, it will be a clear indicator that the Falcons won’t need to make significant investments in the draft and free agency to upgrade their depth at these positions. It will show the team that Ryan can take a marginal NFL receiver and make him into a competent one. And thus this off-season, the Falcons can focus on improving other more important areas such as their running game, offensive line, and defense.

But if Ryan isn’t able to elevate his game, then it will mean that the Falcons will know that they must do a better job surrounding Ryan with more talented weapons to throw to. With the impending retirement of Gonzalez next year and potential departure of White the following year, this evaluation could determine whether the Falcons offense takes a notable dip or manages to become even better in the years following.

Which goes back to a point I made this summer in that the Falcons must find a way to make their $100 million investment worthwhile. If that means that they have to do a better job with surrounding Ryan with first and second-day draft picks at wide receiver and tight end, as opposed to late round picks and undrafted free agents, then so be it.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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