The Overt Impact of Kyle Shanahan on the Atlanta Falcons Offense

Only one team remains available for Kyle Shanahan. The Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator was supposed to be a primary target for head coaching jobs this offseason but his unit’s success hasn’t led to competition for his services. Arguably the least attractive is the only one that remains, that of the San Francisco 49ers.

Shanahan should feel aggrieved that his resume hasn’t earned him a better opportunity. He has played a key role in creating the juggernaut offense that has pushed the Falcons into the NFC Championship Game.

The Falcons ranked first in points during the regular season, second in yards, third in passing yards and fifth in rushing yards. DVOA, a Football Outsiders measurement that tracks efficiency on a snap-by-snap basis, ranked the Falcons offense as the best in the league by a big distance. The unit ranked first in passing and seventh in rushing by DVOA.

Unit success or team success doesn’t always confirm that a coach is doing good work. Take the Falcons’ opponents in the NFC Championship Game for example. Mike McCarthy has done everything possible to hinder the Packers chances. From running a rudimentary offense to retaining the often overwhelmed Dom Capers as his defensive coordiantor, McCarthy is a big reason why Aaron Rodgers had to play historically well for the Packers just to make it into the playoffs.

With Shanahan you can point to specific things he has done to create the offense in Atlanta. His play designs scheme receivers open and take pressure off of the offensive line by putting the quarterback under center before making hard play fakes. Whether under center or in shotgun, Matt Ryan is given options to attack different pre-snap looks with packaged plays. Take the Julio Jones touchdown against the Seahawks this past week as an example.

This is essentially a called running play. You can judge this by watching what the offensive line does when the ball is snapped. It’s a running play where Ryan has the option to abort without actually changing the play. He makes this decision based on the pre-snap look. The key detail here is that the slot cornerback to the quarterback’s left lines up too wide. He is on the outside covering Julio Jones when he needs to be further inside covering the slot receiver.

Ryan recognizes the wide alignment of the slot cornerback and understands how the linebackers will read the offensive line’s action once the ball is snapped. With Richard Sherman’s depth and width in his alignment, Ryan knows he has an easy pitch to Jones.

This isn’t a difficult read for the quarterback. It doesn’t require a precise throw into a tight window. The ball doesn’t even have to travel five yards past the line of scrimmage. So long as Ryan correctly recognizes the alignment he can make this play. If he doesn’t feel 100 percent comfortable making that read, he can just hand the ball off as normal. This is a good play from the quarterback, but it’s not necessarily a difficult play.

Plays like this one are why Shanahan has repeatedly gotten greater-than-expected production from his passing games despite working with different personnel over the course of his career. Whether it’s Robert Griffin III, Brian Hoyer or Matt Ryan, Shanahan sets up an offense where the quarterback position isn’t as stressed as it is in other offenses.

Surpassed the play designs, Shanahan has clearly had a big influence on the way this offense was built. Many of the team’s key additions in the offseason had previously success with Shanahan.

Alex Mack has been an integral piece of the Falcons rushing attack. The variety of blocks that Mack can execute and the comfort with which he takes on difficult assignments has made him an All Pro. Shanahan knew Mack’s quality from his previous stint as the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator. When in Cleveland, he got the most out of an undersized Taylor Gabriel. Gabriel rejoined Shanahan in Atlanta after the Browns released him.

Shanahan knows how to scheme receivers open. He always has. It’s why Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson, another undersized receiver who previously functioned in Shanahan’s Washington offense but did little when he left, have become productive players despite boasting limited talent.

We can’t know for sure how much input Shanahan had in acquiring Tevin Coleman in 2015. We can be certain that Shanahan has made great use of the contrasting skill sets of Coleman and starting running back Devonta Freeman. We can also be certain that Shanahan understands how to attack specific coverages and adjust to specific opponents.

Take Coleman’s touchdown against the Seahawks this past Saturday.

Shanahan understands that the Seahawks are a Cover-3 team. They play Cover-3 on an abnormal percentage of their snaps. It’s not a traditional Cover-3 because it will adjust and adapt to specific route combinations based on the looks the offense gives both before and after the snap. Yet, even accounting for that adjustment, the Seahawks’ commitment to Cover-3 allows offers opposing coordinators an opportunity to attack a coverage that they can predict. Despite the obvious benefits, not all coaches are willing to stray from their philosophy and call specific plays to attack opposing coverages(Hello again, Mike McCarthy).

In the above image you can see the alignment Shanahan sends his offense out in. This is integral for understanding how the play is going to develop. Shanahan has two receivers spread out on the wide side of the field. On the near side of the field, his three eligible receivers are bunched tight together. Taylor Gabriel, the receiver widest to the left, is shaded to the inside of the numbers instead of stretching the field by the sideline.

These three receivers releasing from the same area of the field helps Shanahan confuse the Seahawks’ zone coverage.

Shanahan is stressing the cornerback to the right side of the field. Understanding that the cornerback is responsible for the deep third, he is going to pass two receivers through that area. Before he does that he has to occupy the underneath linebacker to make sure he doesn’t drop beneath the play. Shanahan uses his tight end to draw the outside linebacker to the sideline. For good measure he runs Julio Jones on a shallow crossing route underneath the other linebacker, but he was never drawn to Coleman either way.

Coleman’s route to the corner is an unorthodox one for a player who lines up in the backfield. The Seahawks don’t anticipate him running that route so the cornerback to that side is too late passing off the post route to his safety inside.

By understanding how the coverage works, Shanahan understood how to stress its weak spots. That again led to a wide open throw for Ryan

When the Falcons faced their upcoming opponents, the Green Bay Packers, during the regular season, Ryan threw a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes. Once more Shanahan’s understanding of his opponents tendencies and the intelligence of his play designs set the offense up for success.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers had shown Shanahan plenty of Cover-2 looks through the previous four quarters of the game. He could anticipate this coverage before calling the play that he did. The tight alignment between Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu to the left of the quarterback is critical here. Jones is and Sanu are going to target the right-sided deep safety while the tight end will target the other safety from his position in the slot on the other side of the field.

Shanahan is essentially going to create a two-on-one with the right-sided safety while drawing the left-sided safety completely away from the play.

As the play develops, the right-sided safety is drawn towards Jones. Whether this is because it is Jones or simply because that is the way he has been taught to handle those route combinations is unclear, but it’s largely irrelevant. Shanahan’s play design has put Sanu, a wide receiver, running downfield against a linebacker. The linebacker has no chance of turning and running with Sanu, giving Ryan a major mismatch in space over the middle of the field.

The ball is delivered on time, Sanu makes an impressive adjustment to pull it in and the Falcons win the game.

As outsiders looking in, we can’t evaluate a lot of what coaches do. We aren’t in meetings, we aren’t on the practice field and we don’t get to see the input each coach has on each decision. Some of that information can be retrieved second hand, but it’s just that, second-hand information. The work coaches do Mondays through Saturdays is just as, if not more important than the work they do on Sundays. We also don’t get to sit in interviews or fully grasp what each franchise really wants from the position. Some want to win, others just want to save money and then there are some who don’t seem to know what they want.

From everything that we can see, Shanahan should be a head coach. He doesn’t need to be a great overseer or defensive mind. Sean Payton has kept his job for a decade while constantly being talked about as a trade target without being either.

Shanahan is likely suffering from the same ailment that held back Mike Zimmer. Zimmer was described as being too honest in interviews while he was the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals. He eventually became the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and the Vikings have largely only reaped rewards from his work.

In a league that is being dominated by great offenses, the mastermind behind the greatest of the group should be a head coach.

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