My Perfect Formations: The Atlanta Falcons

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Series Introduction

You may not have noticed yet, because of the simply unbelievable Aaron Hernandez story, but we’ve firmly entered the deadzone of the NFL’s 12-month calendar. This is the time of the year when writers are either taking a much needed vacation or desperately trying to stretch every minor story into major breaking news. At least, that is the case for those writers who are employed by newspapers or large media companies.

Here at PSR, it’s not a media powerhouse and I am my own boss. Therefore, I don’t really have the stress of responsibility that will force me to write something that I don’t want to write about and I certainly don’t make enough money to be taking an extended vacation.

Instead, this is the time of year when I like to juxtapose my tape watching with different exercises that entertain me. This year one of those is the Mirror Images series over at Matt Waldman’s site, but the other is the one I want to write about now.

I want to find out who can put out the single strongest lineup in a specific formation in the whole league. It can be whatever formation you want on offense or defense, the only rule is that you must have 11 players and all 11 must be under contract with the same team. This can be done for either offense or defense and essentially your goal doesn’t change, but your point of view does.

On offense you want to be able to react to everything the defense does. This means having the flexibility to audible into more than two or three different plays and the talent spread through your roster to create matchup advantages where the defense is weak(er). On defense your goal is to hide that weakness and use your strength to create a blanket that puts out every fire the offense tries to light.

This is the ‘Perfect Formations Series‘.

The Atlanta Falcons’ Offense

Not yet two years ago, the Atlanta Falcons’ offense suffered the embarrassment of being shut out in a playoff game. Most of the key components to the offense that failed to put up a single point against the New York Giants that day still remain on the offense today. Quarterback Matt Ryan is under center, tight end Tony Gonzalez has come back for one more year, while Julio Jones and Roddy White are still trying to make plays outside the numbers.

Yet, while the two offenses share that same icing over the top, what makes up the whole cake is very, very different underneath.

When we think of football we inevitably think of the players. When we think of offense we inevitably think about the quarterback. At least, we do in today’s NFL. Whether it be because they are rarely on camera or because most of their work is done during the week leading up to a game, coaches are rarely at the forefront of our minds when football is the topic. Offensive coordinators only come under consideration when it’s time to criticise them for something that the players on the field did or didn’t do.

Being a coach or coordinator is a bit like being a parent. No matter how good of a job you do raising your child, your work will probably only be appreciated by the child themselves, if even that. However, if you do a terrible job and your child is a known problem, then you are likely to receive significantly more of the blame for his/her actions.

Josh McDaniels is a great example of this. In Denver he received huge levels of deserved criticism for how he put together the franchise as a head coach. In New England he gets no credit for playing a significant role in the success of the Patriots’ offense last year. The obvious argument is that McDaniels has Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England while he made some horrible draft picks in Denver.

However, that is not the whole story.

McDaniels made more terrible picks than positive ones, but he hit some major home-runs for the Broncos in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Zane Beadles and arguably JD Walton(although his injury issues must be considered a negative). Last year with the Patriots he had Brady and Belichick, but he also didn’t have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez for large spells, an ever-changing and re-tooling offensive line and multiple issues with multiple wide receivers.

Much like McDaniels, Dirk Koetter of the Atlanta Falcons is almost completely overlooked outside of the Falcons’ fanbase itself. Koetter lost his job as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive coordinator and quarterback coach after the 2011 season, but ultimately replaced the man who would take over the head coach role in Jacksonville, Mike Mularkey, as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator.

Statistically, the Falcons only slightly improved in yards and points, but from a stylistic point of view, the offense now revolved around their quarterback in the way they were hoping it would under Mularkey. Ryan had a career high completion percentage, yet still threw for more yards and touchdowns than he ever had previously. He had taken on more responsibility and he was flourishing under the guidance of Koetter.

While Koetter had inherited the unit that had just come out from under that horrendous showing in the playoffs, he was also inheriting exceptional talent that could be moulded and developed into a high-powered offense. Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez were already where they needed to be, but Julio Jones’ leap to the next level along with Ryan’s would be what would make the difference.

The Falcons had bonafide stars in their passing attack. Jones could do seemingly everything, White was still an incredibly difficult matchup for most defensive backs and Gonzalez was still very much Gonzalez, a hall-of-fame tight end and maybe the greatest to ever play the position.

With all of those pieces and a coordinator who knew how to use them, the Falcons would romp their way to a 13-3 record before waltzing into the playoffs.

For all the shine of that passing attack, they were still lacking in the running game. No, not lacking. Lacking is the wrong word, it implies that they were missing something. The Falcons weren’t just missing something, they were carrying something that was weighing them down. Something where weight was a really sensitive issue.

The Falcons had no real running-threat. Age had turned Michael Turner from a bowling ball into an exercise ball. He was too big, too soft and bounced backwards rather than burst through you. Jacquizz Rodgers was expected to be exciting, but he turned out to be more exciting aesthetically than in terms of performance. Rodgers was a bit like dating a supermodel, he looked good lining up on the field, but you’re probably doing all of the work to take him places.

Even though they had acquired Julio Jones to be that final piece a few seasons back, the development of Jones and Ryan, combined with the delay in finding the right offensive coordinator, meant that it was two years later and they were still one piece away. Just now it wasn’t a wide receiver, it was a running-back.

Running the ball is still important in the NFL, even though the most successful offenses aren’t built on the prowess of their backs. Entering this off-season, the Falcons understood that, but most importantly, they understood that they needed a back who could step in and perform right away.

In Steven Jackson, they got exactly that.

Matchup offenses are a thing of beauty. The New England Patriots have run one in recent years with their tight ends. You know, the offenses that have so many talented players spread across the field that you cannot match up to them or tip the emphasis of your defense in any particular direction. Despite having to undergo some surgery on their offensive line this off-season, the Falcons project to have a matchup offense this season.

When the unit comes out with Jones and White split wide, Harry Douglas in the slot(or indeed outside with White or Jones moving inside), Gonzalez at tight end and Steven Jackson in the backfield, the questions the defense will face will be overwhelming.

Jones is at the point in his career when most defenses will fear leaving a defensive back in single coverage against him. You could put your cornerback on an island with Jones if you drop him off the line of scrimmage by seven to 10 yards, but that makes you susceptible to giving up easy yards underneath because no linebacker could consistently get to him in the flat before the ball.

With Jones in space, the offense will happily put the ball in his hands and ask him to make plays.

So presuming you either look to tip your coverage towards Jones or even double-team him, one of Gonzalez or White are then essentially guaranteed to be in a position where they can use their strength against one defender or find a soft spot in an overstretched zone. Something both can do almost perfectly. With Douglas on the field also, teams won’t feel 100 percent confident that they can cope with his speed despite the fact that he has never really lived up to expectations in Atlanta.

Everyone knows about the passing attack of the Falcons. There’s not much point in getting into great detail about it. Instead it’s more important to look at Jackson’s impact.

Michael Turner really couldn’t move last year. It’s almost comical how slow he was at times yet he was still getting yards. Turner averaged 3.6 yards per carry, but considering his individual ability, that number should have been significantly lower. Had he played in a different offensive setup, he probably could have averaged closer to two yards per carry than three.

What kept Turner ticking over was the way defenses set up to stop him. Turner was the short-yardage back, so his numbers on this are skewed by his 51 attempts inside the redzone last year, but of his 222 carries last year, he only faced 167 base defenses(four defensive backs). In comparison, Steven Jackson faced 186 base defenses on his 257 carries with only 27 carries in the redzone.

Those numbers only consider the personnel on the field, they don’t even consider the alignment of how formations were setup, which should only strengthen the case for how bad Turner truly was last year.

With Jackson replacing Turner, the Falcons are hoping to have a running-back who can exploit those favourable matchups. Jackson isn’t that explosive and won’t consistently hit home-runs from 80 yards out, but with a smaller workload against more defensive backs who are setting up to stop the pass, he should be able to have a bloated average.

More important than his average will be his threat. His threat will pull the defense’s complete focus off of Ryan and his wide receivers. On every single play they will have to worry about what the Falcons are going to do. No longer can they urge Ryan to hand the ball off so that they can come up in a hurry to tackle the soft exercise ball that was Michael Turner.

Now they face a hungry, angry bowling ball who runs with the violence that makes defenders hesitate.

When you’ve got Jackson pounding away at your front seven and the versatile receiving corps that can outrun you, make you miss in space or also pound you down with their strength, it’s very difficult to see how anyone will contain this offense next season.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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