The Atlanta Falcons’ Pass Catching Backs

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Atlanta Falcons are first in points scored with 33.8 and second in yards with 415.8, making a case for one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. Much of their offensive success could be credited to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has come up with creative game plans for a talented group of players. The Falcons offense has a cast of talented pass catchers including Julio Jones, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, and complimentary receivers like Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.

However, the added element of the Falcon’s pass game comes from their running backs. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have made a great impact catching passes out of the backfield and split out wide. The two have combined for 85 receptions and 883 receiving yards in 2016. Individually, Freeman caught 54 passes for 462 yards and Coleman had 31 receptions for 421 yards. The two backs are matchup nightmares for opposing linebackers as they both possess good speed and route running ability for the running back position.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Shanahan’s Creativity

During the Falcon’s Week 3 game against the New Orleans Saints, Shanahan drew up a creative play for Freeman in the red zone on 2nd and 6 to start the second quarter. The Falcons are in 12 offensive personnel with Freeman in the backfield. Quarterback Matt Ryan (#2) motions Sanu (#12) from the left side of the formation to the right, bringing along defensive back Kyle Wilson (#24). This signals that New Orleans is likely playing man coverage and that means a linebacker will likely be on Freeman.

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When the ball is snapped all the receivers run routes to the right side of the formation except for Freeman, who runs a simple swing route to the flat. Jones (#11) runs a crossing route, bringing the outside corner to the left side of the defense and out of the play. The deepest safety is also taken out of the play as he rolls to where the majority of Falcon receivers are. This leaves linebacker Craig Robertson (#52) isolated against Freeman with a lot of open space. Shanahan gets creative here with left tackle Jake Matthews (#70) selling out on pass protection before running upfield to shield off Robertson from Freeman. This allowed Freeman to get the outside angle to the end zone for six.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Freeman in the Slot

Against the Denver Broncos in Week 5, the Falcons pass catching backs had an excellent day. Freeman caught three passes for 35 yards and Coleman collected four receptions for 132 yards. Atlanta worked efficiently on their opening drive, reaching the Denver 15-yard line in five plays. Prior to this play, the Falcons motioned Coleman to the slot and used the inline tight end to set a pick on the linebacker across from him. Coleman used his speed and broke tackles en route to a 48-yard gain.

On this play, the Falcons line up in 13 personnel, an effective group for the Falcons this season. Once again Atlanta motions their running back to the slot. This places Freeman in a favorable matchup against LB Brandon Marshall (#54) in man coverage. When the ball is snapped the running back is going to cut in towards the middle of the field. This causes Marshall to try to cover inside, but Freeman knocks Marshall off of him and pivots to the outside. He’s now open and secures the catch in space. Freeman turns upfield, shaking one defender for some yards after the catch down to the 1-yard line. The Falcons would exploit the Denver linebackers all game long motioning their backs into the slot against slower linebackers like Marshall.

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[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Coleman to the Corner

The Falcons were lined up in 11 personnel up 12-10 with 0:59 left in the first half of the Divisional Round against the Seattle Seahawks for this play. Shanahan makes an excellent call here on 1st and 10 from the Seattle 14 to get a score before the half to bring the score to 19-10.

The design of the play gives the Falcons offense a numbers advantage over the Seahawks. Seattle is playing zone with a Cover 3 look. Presnap, Ryan motions TE Austin Hooper (#81) to the left of LT Matthews. When the ball is snapped, Hooper runs to the flat, Gabriel (#18) runs vertically, Coleman (#26) runs a corner route out of the backfield, and Jones runs a shallow cross. All of these receivers are now occupying the left side of the field and the Seahawks end up leaving Coleman wide open in the end zone.

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This is because Hooper draws linebacker K.J. Wright (#50) to the flat. Kam Chancellor (#31) cuts to Jones on the shallow cross and Gabriel draws DeShawn Shead (#35) towards the middle of the play, leaving the corner of the field open for Coleman to make an easy score. This was a good job of spacing the receivers and making the right side of the Seattle zone useless.

It’s not often a running back is able to run a corner route like Coleman does on this play. He is also able to adjust to the ball as it was thrown a bit short, but also maintained the awareness to keep himself in bounds with the boundary nearby.

Like Shanahan did all season he’ll get creative in his play calling, using the Falcons’ running backs out of the backfield and motioning them to the slot. He’ll leverage match ups and spacing for his players. Not many opposing defenses have linebackers that can match up man-to-man with Freeman and Coleman. With the way Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots gameplan to stop what an opposing offense does best, the Falcons may need their running backs to make an impact in the passing game on Super Bowl Sunday to hoist their first Lombardi trophy.

Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Scott Linehan and the Dallas Cowboys’ Jet Sweep Screen, the offense Doug Pederson will run with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Dak Prescott’s unappreciated skill.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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