The 2016 Falcons have been the biggest surprise team of the season. Expected to finish at the bottom of the NFC South, the team not only won the division at 11-5, but clinched the #2 seed and a first round bye despite a tough schedule. In their playoff games at home, they wiped out Seattle and Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998, facing the Patriots.
The question is, why didn’t this happen the previous year when expectations were high? The team was expected to win the division in 2015, and started out 5-0 before losing 8 of the next 11 games, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. What caused it? Red zone problems and offensive line struggles proved nails in the coffin for the team.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the key behind Atlanta’s success in 2016 has been the offense playing at a higher level. Boasting the #1 scoring offense in the league, the team ripped apart defenses equally on the air and ground. With Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme realizing its potential and Matt Ryan playing more efficiently under it, the offense thrived.
With 540 points, the offense easily led 2016 in scoring, with 71 points ahead of the 2nd place New Orleans Saints; This was the 9th highest scoring differential from first to second place since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966.
As you can see, the 2013 Broncos and 2007 Patriots were historically explosive, The 49ers were on fire in the 90s, and the Rams had that historic Greatest Show on Turf run during the turn of the new millennium. So are the 2016 Falcons historic? Well, in comparison to some of teams mentioned, not quite as much. However, they are one of the best offenses in recent memory, as shown by several statistics that are worthy of being mentioned.
-The Falcons have scored a TD on their opening drive in each of their last 8 games prior to the Super Bowl matchup against New England.
-In 14 of 18 games played prior to the Super Bowl, the Falcons have scored on their opening drive. In those 14 games, the team is 12-2.
-Matt Ryan’s 9.3 Yards Per Attempt are the most from any qualifying QB since Kurt Warner’s 9.9 in 2,000.
-With 1,409 receiving yards in 14 games (100.6 YPG), not only has Julio Jones put up a record 4 consecutive seasons with 100 yards per game or more, this is also the most seasons of this kind in NFL history, as no other receiver has more than 3. It should be noted Jones only played 5 games in 2013, but this is still a tremendous achievement.
-On their 6 game winning streak extending into the postseason, the Falcons have scored 39.0 points per game. In 3 of those last 6 games, they’ve put up at least 40 points.
-The offense has scored 30 points or more in 11 games this season, the 5th highest mark in NFL history (This does NOT include postseason games).
-Matt Ryan has set single season franchise records for passing yards (4,944), completion percentage (69.9%), touchdowns (38), and passer rating (117.1, which is also the fifth highest mark in NFL history)
The team’s offense finished first in Football Outsider’s DVOA metric, a stat that judges team efficiency while adjusting a team’s schedule.
Special Thanks to @Topher_Doll for helping out with some of the stats.
We’ve broken down the team statistically, but what caused these statistics to appear against teams like the Packers, Seahawks, Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Buccaneers, Eagles, Panthers and Cardinals?
To help, Atlanta got heavily involved during the offseason. The team signed former Cleveland Browns Alex Mack (center) and Taylor Gabriel (WR), who previously played under Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when he was in Cleveland in 2014. Bengals receiver Mohamad Sanu was signed as well.
The development of key players was also a huge plus. Devonta Freeman cemented himself in the top 10 running back conversation, while Tevin Coleman broke out and established himself as the team’s #1 receiving back. Gabriel, Jones, and Sanu ended up being perfect players for the kind of offense Shanahan was calling, and Ryan, the presumable MVP, was able to overcome his red zone struggles from the previous season to help elevate Atlanta’s passing game.
With a quality offensive line, great running game, explosive passing game enhanced by Shanahan’s excellent scheme, and Matt Ryan putting up giant numbers, the Falcons offense thrived.
But it doesn’t do any justice to just talk about the players without showing visual imagery. These are the standout keys to Atlanta’s offense with some of their best plays GIF’d.
Matt Ryan has had a career year statistically. As well as likely winning the MVP award, Ryan was elected First Team All Pro as a QB, the first Falcons QB to have said honor. While he’s never been the flashiest passer, Ryan has always been really good, even great at times. He’s also a smart QB, able to make up for a lack of great arm strength or standout mobility by being accurate and executing Kyle Shanahan’s offense much more efficiently than 2015.
Julio Jones is one of the best receivers in the game. He is up there guys like Odell Beckham, AJ Green, or Antonio Brown, and at his peak he’s near unstoppable. His ability at the catch point combined with his size and frame has made him a one man wrecking crew at times, and his explosiveness after the catch, including his ease at creating separation, has helped him rack up massive numbers.
Much like Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman broke out in his sophomore season and took a huge step forward, and continued his progression with a terrific 2016 season. Exceptional as both a runner and a receiver (his 437 YAC were the 4th most among receiving backs in 2016, only behind Bell, David Johnson, and James White), Freeman offers smooth cuts, impressive turns to the other side of the field, great vision in tight gaps, and a nice burst after contact. His development has not only been a surprise, but also welcomed in a league currently rich with running back talent.
Tevin Coleman is Plan B for the Falcons run game, and a really good plan B at that. Coleman’s skill set is just in the ballpark as Freeman’s, but he’s also faster and less hesitant, and has more of a pinball burst than Freeman. Like Freeman, Coleman was a question mark his rookie season before taking a big leap forward, not only giving Freeman rest, but also quality depth at the running back position. With Freeman and Coleman, Atlanta has had one of the most explosive run games in the league.
Kyle Shanahan’s Gameplan
Finally, we take a look at the true heart of the Falcons offense: coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan had already proven himself as a coordinator in roles with Washington and Cleveland. In Cleveland he was able to get the most out of Brian Hoyer and elevate the team to a 7-4 start. 2015 did not finish as was expected, but 2016’s results cemented his status as the best offensive coordinator in the league.
Shanahan is an excellent playcaller because of his creativity and intelligence. He understands how to scheme players open, how to negate weaknesses on offense and how to exploit weaknesses on the other side of the ball, and gets the most out of limited players. All of this is done with play calling that is not only fresh and diverse, but also makes sense and has thought put into it (something certain coaches in the league lack).
In the GIF above, from the divisional game against the Seahawks, the Falcons run a slant designed to get in the hands of Julio Jones immediately. Ryan is supposed to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and he does. This stuns Seattle’s defense, who is playing back expecting longer developing routes. With the receiver next to Julio becoming a blocker, Shanahan’s play call exposes the coverage, resulting in an easy touchdown for the dirty birds.
In the GIFs above, Shanahan provides free lessons on how to create space in routes. In the first GIF, on the left side, the routes of the two receivers intersect, allowing Coleman to get open on the shallow cross route allowing for an easy first down. In the 2nd GIF, the offensive line is schemed intentionally to bring “pressure” on Ryan, allowing him to dump the ball off to a wide open Taylor Gabriel, with blockers in front of him. This is a great play call and the execution is just as good.
Another thing shown from the 2 GIFs is the Falcons are very well coached and disciplined. This sounds like a given, but certain teams have hotheads that can’t keep their cool or approach the ball or a route the wrong way. Pretty much all of Atlanta’s skill players have strong technique to approaching the ball and route, and in doing so make the end results much better. This not only can be credited to head coach Dan Quinn, but Shanahan’s offensive scheme as well.
Lastly, as previously stated, Kyle Shanahan knows how to get the most out of limited players. Mohamad Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are not outstanding players, but are good fits under Shanahan’s offense. Gabriel was a former Brown who previously had experience with Shanahan in 2014. In 2015, Gabriel had drop and route issues, leading to Cleveland releasing him.
While Gabriel has a limited skill set, Shanahan’s been able to put him in places where he is best suited in. In the end around above, Gabriel is the perfect fit for the play call because of his speed. The blocking is outstanding, so Gabriel doesn’t need to rely on fancy moves, just speed.
The 2016 Atlanta Falcons’ offense was excellent. No one will probably say they were on the level of the 2007 Patriots or 1999 Rams in terms of talent, but in terms of refinement, technique, and execution, they just might be up there with those teams. They’ve offered a consistent level of explosive field opening play that we’ve seen before, just not done this well.
Regardless of the end result of the Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots, the team’s offense has cemented itself as one of the greats. If it’s not an all time great, it’s at the very least one of the best of the 21st century. For a city that has had very limited postseason success, the Falcons offense, and the team as a whole, has given Atlanta sports fans something to remember and hold on to for a very long time.
(Stats via pro-football-reference, sportingcharts, and ESPN.)