“It feels like everybody’s open at the same time,” Julio Jones said after the Falcons finished wiping their feet with the Buccaneers Thursday night. He wasn’t exaggerating, and this wasn’t some one-off. Through nine games, Atlanta’s offense is the best in the NFL, and it’s making a run at history.
The Falcons are ranked first in DVOA. They’ve scored at least 40 points three times. And they’re putting up 33.9 points per game; since the merger, that’s a total that’s been matched over the course of a season just six times. Yes, offense and passing have been way up in recent years, but the Falcons are also averaging 6.8 yards per play—the best mark since the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams of 2000.
With four more touchdown passes against the Bucs, Matt Ryan has now thrown for 23 TDs against just four interceptions, along with a league-best 13.7 yards per completion. Now in his ninth year, Ryan has never had a season with a passer rating above 100. This season, he’s at 119.0, second only to Tom Brady’s 133.9. Ryan’s completion percentage (69.6) and net yards per attempt (8.46) are also second to Brady’s, albeit with five more games played. Like Lions QB Matt Stafford, who is also having an MVP-caliber year, Ryan has always been a volume passer. His previous best season was with that almost-Super Bowl team of 2012, when he counted Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Harry Douglas among his targets. But in recent seasons, Jones had become a one-man band. Yet now, by surrounding Ryan with weapons other than Jones, and with some unique personnel groupings and route combinations cooked up by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Atlanta may have finally unlocked Ryan’s full potential.
Last season, Ryan was heavily dependent on Jones, who accounted for 33 percent of the Falcons’ receptions. This year, Ryan is spreading the ball around much more: Jones still accounts for 23.3 percent of all catches, but plenty of other receivers are getting involved. Eight Falcons already have at least 10 receptions, and last night four different players caught touchdowns. Just as Jones said, it really does seem like everybody is open at the same time.
Atlanta’s biggest free-agent addition is Mohamed Sanu, a big possession receiver who has proven to be the perfect complement to a superstar like Jones. They also added center Alex Mack to an offensive line that Pro Football Focus had ranked fourth-best in pass blocking efficiency last year, and just before the start of this season, the Falcons claimed speedster Taylor Gabriel off waivers from the Browns, giving them an another deep threat. Throw in tight ends Jacob Tamme, Austin Hooper, and Levine Toilolo, plus running back Devonta Freeman and fullback Patrick DiMarco, and it becomes easy to forget that running back Tevin Coleman actually missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
Ryan’s the guy that pulls everything together. Here he is beating the Bucs’ zone to find Toilolo for a 32-yard touchdown, after stepping up in the pocket and seeing that cornerback Brent Grimes had bit toward the outside receiver:
On that play, watch Ryan’s eyes, which scan the entire field:
This is how varied and game-plan effective the Falcons have been this season: According to PFF, Ryan leads the league in yards (779) and touchdowns (eight) on deep passes, which are defined as throws that travel 20 yards or more through the air, and his rating on deep throws is a league-best 138.6. Ryan can also get rid of it quickly and throw short: Per Sporting Charts, his pass catchers lead the league in yards after catch (1,258).
Shanahan, whose history with Washington and the Browns made him look like just another retread, has figured out how to best mix things up. Because the Falcons have some semblance of a running game—they’re 11th-best in yards per carry at 4.36—they use a lot of play-action, with Ryan faking a handoff on 27.7 percent of all dropbacks, per PFF. Last night, against a Bucs team that had played 94 defensive snaps four days earlier in an overtime loss to the Raiders, the Falcons also blended in some occasional no-huddle that seemed to gas Tampa’s defenders. And in a Week 5 win at the Broncos, the plan was run-heavy, with Ryan throwing it 28 times—seven below his season average—while Freeman and Coleman combined for 119 rushing yards on 29 carries.
For several seasons, the most common personnel grouping in the league has included one running back, one tight end, and three receivers, or “11" personnel. The Falcons do indeed use this type of set most of the time. But Inside the Pylon this week took a great look at how Shanahan keeps defenses off-balance by using sets that include one running back and three tight ends to run or throw the ball. This can create a variety of mismatches, depending on whether a defense chooses to stay in its base package or to sub in additional defensive backs.
Even a two-tight end look can work to the Falcons’ advantage. Here, in a Week 8 win against the Packers, Hooper and Toilolo are lined up in trips to the right (at the top of the screen) along with Gabriel, with Jones split wide to the left (at the bottom). Just before the play begins, Ryan recognizes the Packers are keeping both of their safeties deep, so he calls an audible. Toilolo stays in to protect before rubbing off into the flat, but Hooper runs a curl route that draws the safety on Gabriel’s side forward. This then leaves Gabriel alone in single coverage over the top. Touchdown:
Here’s another two-tight end look during the game-winning drive against the Packers. At the bottom of the screen, watch how Jones goes deep, dragging one defender with him and picking off another to free up Sanu for an easy third-down catch:
At 6-3, the Falcons are already starting to pull away in a weak NFC South. Their next two games are against the Eagles (No. 1 in defensive DVOA) and Cardinals (No. 4), with a bye week in between. After that, the Chiefs (No. 9) pay a visit. We’ll certainly know much more about Ryan’s MVP case—and Atlanta’s run at history—once they get through that gauntlet of opponents.