Perhaps Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn heard many of the criticisms centered on his coaching from last week’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If so, then it appeared the concerted effort to silence his critics paid off in a major way to get the Falcons season back on track with a 35-28 win over the Oakland Raiders, the team’s first of the 2016 NFL regular season.
The most notable change was the Falcons’ increased usage of no huddle on offense. According to the NFL’s official game book from last week’s contest, the Falcons utilized no huddle on just two of their 64 offensive plays against the Bucs.
Notably one of those two plays came at the end of the third quarter when the Falcons were able to give their offense an adrenaline shot just before a 25-yard score by wide receiver Julio Jones to get the team back into that game.
Falcons Up their Tempo With Increased No Huddle Versus Raiders
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, notorious for his stubborn refusal to turn the keys over to quarterback Matt Ryan, proved far more pliable this week against the Raiders.
According to the official game book, Atlanta utilized no huddle on 24 of their 64 offensive plays against Oakland. Those 24 plays came on seven separate possessions. The Falcons scored on five of those drives for a total of 32 points. On their other three possessions that did not use no huddle, they scored only once which resulted in a mere three points.
It’s going to be much harder to continue to argue that the Falcons offense doesn’t benefit from letting Matt Ryan facilitate more from the line of scrimmage now given the weight of that evidence.
The fact that the Falcons turned to the no huddle this early in the season certainly was a surprise, particularly given Shanahan’s reputation. But it’s a welcome surprise and hopefully the second-year coordinator is willing to be far more open, particularly since continued struggles will only hurt his job security in the long run.
The big question however is whether or not this will be a sustained wrinkle for the Falcons offense in the coming weeks or will they once again revert back to an offense mostly called by Shanahan from the booth and/or sideline.
Ye what is most promising in the hope that the Falcons continue to use no huddle is that they were effective maintaining their offensive balance while utilizing their up-tempo attack this past week. Ryan himself expressed concerns earlier this week about whether the no huddle “waters down” their running game, the foundation of Shanahan’s offensive system. Thus resulting in why the team has been reluctant to dial it up more.
However this week against the Raiders, 10 of the team’s 24 no-huddle calls (or 42 percent) wound up being run plays. That’s not far off the team’s overall run-pass balance from Sunday with the team having 29 called runs in 64 total plays (45 percent). That indicates that the Falcons can still base their offense around the run game even when they go up tempo into no huddle.
Increased Big Plays Pay Dividends For Falcons
On that same note of a working ground attack, another improvement the Falcons made this past Sunday against the Raiders was in their ability to dial up big plays.
The Falcons generated seven plays of 20 or more yards, the most for the team since they had that same number against the Buccaneers in a 56-point effort back in 2014. That night included six offensive touchdowns.
A big part as to why the Falcons were able to generate those big plays was thanks to their play-action passing attack building off a 139-yard effort on the ground. That latter figured marked the most the Falcons had generated on the ground in their last 12 games, dating back to a 150-yard performance against the New Orleans Saints early last season.
It’s unlikely a coincidence that the win over the Raiders marked only the fourth win in that 12-game span, another indicator in just how important the running game is to the team’s offensive and overall success.
Four of the team’s seven big plays on Sunday came off feigned handoffs to running backs, resulting in a combined 122 yards.
Of course those big plays helped the Falcons put up points as they often do, coming on six separate drives that resulted in 32 points for the team. That figure could have been higher if not for the red-zone interception from Ryan that potentially took seven more points off the board.
Red-Zone Improvement Due to Execution and Luck
Building off that same token of red-zone failures, the one area of concern raised for the Falcons this week was their continued struggles converting touchdowns in the red zone. The team failed to convert any of their first three trips inside the opposing 20-yard line into touchdowns, but did however convert their last three.
What changed? Better execution and a little bit of luck could easily be pointed to why the Falcons managed to finish the game strong.
The better execution first came in the third quarter when the team was able to sneak tight end Jacob Tamme underneath on another play-action pass for a 14-yard score. The Falcons fooled the Raiders in part because their balanced attack forced the Raiders to respect the run on that particular first-down play.
Of the 24 first downs that had preceded that specific one, the Falcons had a 12 to 12 run-pass ratio, representing perfect balance. Despite biting on the run action in the backfield, the Raiders still managed to play things well, as every other receiver was well covered before Ryan found Tamme, his fourth option that had slipped out of the backfield unnoticed and uncovered. Tamme then avoided a tackler and sprinted into the end zone for a score.
Then luck struck on their next red-zone trip when wide receiver Justin Hardy scored off a deflected pass. That series began like a typical Falcons red-zone trip with two gains for minimal yardage on a first and second down run by Devonta Freeman and catch by Mohamed Sanu, respectively. Then on third down the Falcons tried to run a slant underneath to Coleman, who was isolated one-on-one outside against Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith. This play call made sense given that the team had run it on the preceding possession for a 24-yard gain and only needed a third of that yardage to score this time around.
However Ryan threw slightly behind Coleman, who couldn’t adjust to the throw with Smith closing in for the hit. The ball deflected up in the air and Hardy was in the right place at the right time to make a leaping grab for the fortuitous touchdown.
That play marked the Falcons’ only conversion on three “four-point plays,” a term I heard former Cleveland Browns general manager Mike Lombardi coin on a recent episode of the Bill Simmons Podcast. That term was used by Lombardi to describe third downs in the red zone which decide whether a team scores seven points on a touchdown or three on a field goal, representing a four-point swing.
Falcons Red-Zone Struggles Center on Third-Down Ineffeciency
The Falcons only converted one of four of these critical red-zone third downs last week against the Buccaneers, a continuation of struggles that the team also experienced throughout the 2015 season.
During an opening month that saw the Falcons go undefeated in 2015, they were very successful on seven of nine four-point plays. However thereafter the team managed to convert a mere two such four-point tries on 23 opportunities in their final 12 games of last season.
Perhaps notably, Jones only received four targets, representing just 14 percent of Ryan’s 27 pass attempts in those critical situations last season. Only one of Jones’ two catches resulted in a score.
While the Hardy play certainly qualifies as a successful one on the stat sheet, there’s no doubt that a high degree of serendipity was involved in converting it. It’s hard to say based off the team’s start so far in 2016 whether these third-down situations in the red zone will continue to plague the team moving forward.
Fortunately the Falcons’ next red-zone trip on Sunday against the Raiders didn’t involve them being put in an unfavorable third-down situation. On a first down, running back Tevin Coleman found space behind a well-executed block from right tackle Ryan Schraeder to score on a 13-yard run to get the team’s final successful red-zone conversion.
Perhaps the secret for the Falcons to do a better job converting in the red zone may simply involve executing better on first and second down in order to avoid those problematic third downs. And if or when the team finds themselves in those third-down situations, designing a few more plays to go in Jones’ direction would probably be a smart call.
In the end, Sunday’s win over the Raiders represents a very positive development for the Falcons. Several areas of concern that plagued the team in their season-opening loss to the Buccaneers appeared improved if not outright fixed yesterday.
Perhaps most importantly the Falcons were able to establish a running game against a physical Raiders front. That’s a testament to the offensive line’s performance, which also deserves credit for their ability to hold up against a fearsome pass rush led by edge-rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. Both players had a quiet day and were stymied by Falcons tackles Jake Matthews and Schraeder. The only sack allowed by the Falcons was to defensive tackle Stacy McGee on the opening series. Thereafter, Ryan was hardly harassed.
The remaining questions are going to center on whether or not the Falcons can pull off similar performances moving forward given the toughness of their remaining schedule. Will this game be looked upon as a one-game aberration, or instead a turning point for the Quinn regime that finally seemed to fulfill promises of improved coaching?
The Falcons were routinely plagued last season by repetitive mistakes such as a untimely turnovers, red-zone inefficiency and general inconsistency after starting the year 5-0 before losing seven of their next eight games on their way to an 8-8 finish.
The disappointing start to the 2016 season last week seemed to promise more of the same, but yesterday’s win against the Raiders suggests that the team is not quite ready to lay down.
Only time will tell how the remainder of the 2016 season plays out, but it was nice for Quinn to silence critics of his overall coaching competency for at least a week.