A week ago the overarching story from the Atlanta Falcons season-opening win over the Chicago Bears centered on the former’s defense stepping up to win.
Yesterday in primetime against the Green Bay Packers in the first regular-season game played inside newly opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the narrative focuses on the resurgent Falcons offense leading them to a 34-23 victory.
The Falcons offense came out strong in the first half, generating most of their points before focusing on ball control and bleeding clock with only three second-half possessions to hold onto their 24-7 halftime lead.
The Falcons were able to get off to a fast start against the Packers defense thanks to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian calling a game that was very reminiscent of his predecessor Kyle Shanahan with a healthy mix of explosive plays. That was an ingredient that was sorely missing from the Falcons recipe against the Bears a week ago.Sarkisian incorporating elements of the offense that were sorely missing a week before in Chicago.
Sarkisian incorporated those older elements of the offense this week and it paid off with a number of big plays.
In the first half, the Falcons utilized play action on four of their 22 called pass plays, nearly matching the five called play-action passes in the entirety of their 32 pass plays against the Bears. This week quarterback Matt Ryan completed three of four attempts on those play-action passes for a combined 77 yards. Those three completions accounted for gains of 34, 24 and 19 yards.
The Falcons had eight gains of 19 or more yards in the first half against the Packers in comparison with the five they had for the entire Bears game. Sarkisian effectively rediscovered the team’s explosive identity that fueled so much of their offensive success a year ago.
Against the Bears, Ryan attempted only four deep passes (one of which was nullified by a penalty) that traveled more than 15 yards in the air in all four quarters. He surpassed that benchmark against the Packers in the first half this week with five deep tosses, including three that came off play action.
In total, Ryan had a passer rating of 116.7 on play-action passes and 118.8 on deep throws during the first half against Green Bay. Those plays seemingly helped the Falcons passer get into a stronger rhythm than he did a week ago against the Bears, when his timing and ball placement was a little off at times.
Sarkisian also incorporated unique looks that seemed to create mismatches for the offense against the Packers, another key component to Shanahan’s success a year ago.
The Packers like to use their “nitro” package, which is their three-safety look that adds much-needed speed to their defense. They used it on 42 of 49 plays against the Seattle Seahawks in their season-opening win a week ago. The Falcons were seemingly prepared and ready to exploit it at various times during the first half of last night’s action.
One particularly interesting play came early in the second quarter with the Falcons facing a third-and-12 in Packers territory. The Falcons deployed their “10” personnel grouping with one running back and no tight ends on the field. This put four wide receivers on the field against the Packers’ six defensive backs, with three safeties joined by a trio of cornerbacks. But those three corners could only account for three of the Falcons wide receivers and thus create a favorable matchup for one of the wideouts against a safety.
That represented a fairly new wrinkle to the Falcons offense under Sarkisian for 2017. The Falcons utilized “10” personnel just 10 times last season, but pulled out that formation four times against the Packers in the first half of last night’s action. Likely because they knew it was only a matter of time before they could get a wideout-on-safety type of matchup to exploit.
On this particular third-down play, it was Packers safety Morgan Burnett that was forced to cover a wide receiver. Burnett normally lines up as an inside linebacker for the Packers in their “nitro” package, acting as an box run defender. Burnett is skilled enough to handle himself in man coverage against tight ends, but lining up against one of the Falcons wide receivers would present a more formidable challenge.
The Falcons lined up Julio Jones split out wide left with Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu both lined up inside. Before the ball was snapped, Jones motioned right behind Sanu for a stack concept that Shanahan often utilized in years past to give the second receiver a free release off the line.
Thanks to the pre-snap motion, Packers slot cornerback Quinten Rollins and Burnett were now stuck facing Jones and Sanu. With Burnett playing inside, he would be essentially responsible for any receiver that released inside, while Rollins would be responsible for whoever’s route that released towards the sideline.
However at the snap, Sanu ran a vertical stem while Jones took his first steps towards the middle of the field as if he was prepared to run a shallow cross. Yet after a few steps, Jones then pivoted and ran an out pattern towards the sideline.
Sanu’s vertical route carried both Rollins and Burnett upfield, as both defenders’ initial read warranted. Once Jones broke to the sideline however Rollins was supposed to switch back, and he had given up too much cushion for the Falcons’ All-Pro receiver. Jones made the quick grab, accelerated after the catch and avoided Rollins’ diving tackle attempt to gain 15 yards and convert the third-and-long.
The Falcons had five such third-and-long (i.e. seven or more yards to go) opportunities a week ago against the Bears, managing to convert one on a 40-yard play to tight end Austin Hooper, and another on a roughing the passer penalty against Akiem Hicks. Other than that, Ryan was sacked and hit on two others and completed a four-yard pass to set up a field goal on another.
The third-and-long against the Packers outlined above was their second of the night as the previous Falcons series was a three-and-out thanks to Ryan getting dropped for a sack on third-and-10. But it was nice to see that the Falcons can survive disadvantageous third-and-long situations under Sarkisian.
That’s important because so far the early results of the season raise questions over the Falcons ability to keep Ryan upright.
That continued again on Sunday night with the Packers’ pass-rushers taking advantage of the absence of right tackle Ryan Schraeder from the lineup and the youth of right guard Wes Schweitzer. Schraeder exited the game after the first series with a concussion, to be replaced by newly acquired backup Ty Sambrailo in his first action in a Falcons uniform. He had only been on the roster for 17 days and it often showed.
He and Schweitzer gave up their fair share of pressures, particularly when the Packers felt inclined to throw stunts and twists at them as it was clear that the Falcons’ two most inexperienced blockers weren’t comfortable working in tandem with one another. The aforementioned three-and-out that ended on a third-down sack was the result of a pair of stunts on either side of the line dropping Ryan for a loss.
So far this year, Ryan has been sacked five times and hit 11 on 63 dropbacks. That number may not stand out too much at face value, but if extrapolating to match the 571 dropbacks Ryan had in 2016, it equals him being sacked 45 times and hit 100 times in 2017.
That would exceed the 44 times he was dropped for a sack in 2013, the most of any of the nine seasons Ryan has thus far played in a Falcons uniform. Plus that 2013 season saw Ryan drop back to throw 695 times, much allowing for many more opportunities to be taken down than either 2016 or 2017 seem to headed towards.
Ryan was hit 100 times in 2013, which was exceeded by the 106 hits he took last season. The Falcons can’t afford to leave their quarterback in vulnerable situations with too many third-and-longs that allow defenders to pin their ears back and put the team’s greener blockers like Schweitzer and Sambrailo at a disadvantage.
But it was also good to see the Falcons able to climb out of that hole, as it could be very problematic moving forward if the key to slowing down the Falcons offense is for defenses to win on the early downs to put themselves in advantageous situations on third down.
Even under Shanahan, the Falcons weren’t an especially dangerous offense on third-and-long, converting just 25 percent of those plays in 2016 when the league average was 25.6 percent. The Falcons offensive line a year ago was overmatched too often on third downs, giving up 16 sacks on 144 third-down pass plays for a sack rate of 11.1 percent, the fifth-worst in the league last year. But what worked for the Falcons was their tendency to avoid such third-and-longs, as their 92 plays were the third-lowest total in the entire league.
That was thanks to Shanahan’s strong play-calling and game management on early downs to keep defenses playing on their heels and off-balanced. This led to a dynamic where the Falcons offense was able to dictate things to their opponents rather than the other way around. That was not necessarily the case in the Falcons’ season-opener against the Bears. Yet fortunately, Sarkisian’s smart design seemed to kick in during this second game of action.
The strong performance of the Falcons offense in Week Two doesn’t necessarily clarify why the team got off to such a slow start a week earlier against the Bears. But it certainly clears up most of the concerns over whether the Falcons were on the verge of suffering from a major downgrade in terms of their play-calling in 2017 with Sark at the helm instead of Shanahan. This Falcon team can’t really afford to go through another year of offensive growing pains similar to what they experienced in the first year under Shanahan in 2015.
Instead, the offense that took the field last night against the Packers was one that meshed favorably with the one that scored at a nearly record-setting pace a year ago.
While Sunday night’s performance doesn’t guarantee that the Falcons will be able to repeat it for their next 14 games, it at least indicates that Sarkisian is aware of what makes this offense work at peak efficiency. It was an important, early step forward for the team with Sarkisian being able to instill confidence that he isn’t a weak link.
He accomplished exactly that task in front of a national television audience on Sunday night, keeping critics like myself at bay for the immediate future.
The defensive improvement that started a week ago continued this past week, with a pair of turnovers contributing to 14 of the team’s points thanks to an interception and fumble recovery by Desmond Trufant resulting either putting the offense in scoring position or directly into points on successive drives to end the first and start the second half.
Through two games the Falcons have thus far answered the two biggest question marks they had entering the season:
- What strides will the defense make in 2017?
- How much dropoff (if any) will the offense have with Sarkisian taking over play calling?
With those concerns somewhat mitigated, it’s hard to ask for a better way for the Falcons to start 2017 given how things ended more than seven months ago.