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Scouting Report: Falcons’ Offense Features Interesting Run-Heavy Offense

As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.

Today, scouting the Atlanta Falcons’ offense.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT

FALCONS RUN GAME

An interesting and pretty unique run game. Kinda Baltimore-like. Overall, they’re 5th in the NFL averaging 4.9 yards per carry while their 12 rushing scores are top-10 in the league. However, they’ve also fumbled 12 times which is among the most this year, tied 4th. Eight of those came from QB Marcus Mariota.

Three running backs plus Mariota have 70+ carries this year: rookie Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson, Mariota, and Caleb Huntley. All four are averaging at least 4.6 yards per carry and they do a good job keeping guys fresh and rotating different people in with specific wrinkles to their skillset. For example, Patterson gets moved around more and is more involved in the pass game. Last week, Patterson led the room in snaps (33) with Allgeier (22) in second. As a team, they have 51 runs of 10+ yards, 5th most in football and only the Chicago Bears have run the ball more than the Falcons’ 390 carries despite Atlanta being 5-7 and not always sitting on leads.

Just to hammer the point home more, no team has run the ball more on 1st down this season than the Falcons, with a whopping 217. To make that number relative, the more important figure, they’re running 70% of the time on first down. The next closest team is the Tennessee Titans at 65.9%.

Schematically, it’s Baltimore or even 49ers-like in the Colin Kaepernick days with their heavy use of pistol, sidecars, and diamond formations. Pistol helps disguise the direction of their runs with the back behind the quarterback instead of next to him. They use a lot of outside zone with the aiming point to the butt of the tight end.

Mariota’s legs are used in this offense and command attention. He’s stayed healthy and has been used on designed runs. Zone reads are common around the league, even Pittsburgh sprinkles them in, but the Falcons layer it with an “arc” block from an H-Back. Here, watch the off-ball end pull across, ignore the DE (who is being read) and work to the 2nd level. That’s an arc block. Stuff you see a ton from the Shanahan tree.

Some other offensive starts. On the year, they’re averaging 22.7 points per game, 14th in football. They’re an impressively good situational team, 41.5% on third down (11th) and 61.1% in the red zone (9th).

Falcons Passing Game

Led by Marcus Mariota. Despite a checkered injury history, Mariota has not only been healthy this year but he’s thrown every single pass by a Falcon this season. Not many other teams in that territory. So all passing stats are his. He’s completing 62% of his passes with 14 TDs and eight interceptions. Their 276 passing attempts are 30th in the league, speaking to their run-heavy approach I outlined above.

The receiving core is weak, especially without TE Kyle Pitts, though Pitts was struggling to get involved before suffering a season-ending leg injury. Rookie Drake London is their No. 1 weapon with 41 receptions and four touchdowns. The passing game runs through him. The underrated Olamide Zaccheaus is averaging a healthy 15.5 yards per reception while former Brown KhaDarel Hodge is averaging 16.4 on his handful of catches. But minus Pitts, only two players, London and Zaccheaus, have caught more than 15 passes this year. It’s a running back/tight end-heavy offense that doesn’t often put many receivers on the field.

As a team, they have just 29 completions of 20+ yards. That’s tied for 25th in the NFL.

Conceptually, and this can apply to run or pass games, there’s a lot of motion and window dressing. It’ll be a motion-off contest between the Falcons and Matt Canada Orbit motion, tight end trades, and different shifts as the Falcons are rarely a static offense as they approach the line of scrimmage. Here are just some examples of that and the adjustments Pittsburgh will need to make as they get different looks.

I saw it more in Week 11 than Week 12, but the Falcons run a lot of their offense out of balanced, 2×2 personnel. And they can run spacing/mirrored concepts off it.

The offense relies heavily on constraint plays. Running one concept early and then working off it. Good example of it here. RB screens to Cordarrelle Patterson. See it thrown to him in these first clips with them faking it in the third, throwing deep on this divide concept for a big gain down the right sideline.

Same with their playaction game. Playfakes that look like runs that become max-protect, two-man routes where the Falcons will take shots. One last note. The Falcons do a nice job of moving their pocket. Not a ton of traditional dropback sets for Mariota. The line is shifting and sliding which makes it a little less conventional to get to the QB. Some examples.

Josh’s Individual Report

It’s Falcons week, Steelers fans!

Fresh off of a thrilling win on Monday Night Football over the Indianapolis Colts, the Pittsburgh Steelers hit the road on a short week for another tough matchup, this time against the physical Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Georgia.

Led by veteran quarterback Marcus Mariota, a physical rushing attack with three solid running backs and an opportunistic passing attack, Atlanta’s offense can be difficult to deal with.

After being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Mariota has had a bit of a journeyman’s career, losing his job in Tennessee to Ryan Tannehill before bouncing around the last few seasons with the Raiders and now the Falcons.

In Atlanta, Mariota is a great fit in head coach Arthur Smith’s scheme. He runs the read-option very well, brings serious juice as a rusher and has a good enough arm to make many of the throws required in the NFL.

 

He’s most dangerous in the red zone, where he can keep it or pull it on the RPO or on play-action, making pinpoint throws for scores.

He’s developed a real rapport with rookie receiver Drake London in the red zone, utilizing the rookie’s massive wingspan and catch radius to put it where only he can get it.

London has also adapted well to Mariota’s scrambling abilities, learning to extend his routes and find open space to show his quarterback his numbers. He has terrific body control too, which allows him to move like a much smaller receiver.

 

Mariota struggles with some of the layered throws over the middle, but he still throws a very accurate deep ball with plenty of zip on it. He has easy accuracy down the field, which shows up when the play is designed to pull the trigger going deep.

That’s not called often by Smith, who likes to run the football and remains rather conservative overall in the passing game.

 

 

In the run game, Mariota is a major issue for defenses to handle, especially when it comes to the usage of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley in the backfield.

Mariota can handle RPO and read-options and executes them at a high level, adding a serious element to the Falcons’ offensive attack, really stressing defenders.

 

The run game has been rather impressive in Atlanta all season long. With Patterson, Allgeier and Huntley in the backfield, the Falcons can rotate all three to keep them fresh and healthy, allowing them to really wear down defenses.

While Patterson is on a Hall of Fame pace as a return man, he’s developed very well into a solid running back overall. His vision is terrific and he consistently finds open space, making him rather dangerous on every touch.

 

Allgeier brings the physical element to Atlanta’s rushing attack.

A former star at BYU, Allgeier personifies what Atlanta is all about offensively at the moment. He isn’t flashy, doesn’t have home run speed and won’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he’s a tank rolling downhill in the run game, dishes out punishment to defenders and consistently keeps the offense ahead of schedule.

 

Outside of London in the passing attack, Olamide Zaccheaus has emerged in the last two years as a legitimate No. 2-3 type in Atlanta. He has really good hands, is an underrated route runner and has some underrated explosiveness to his game.

He can beat teams deep and will test Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Without Kyle Pitts at tight end, Mycole Pruitt has emerged as Mariota’s favorite target at the position, especially on play-action rollouts. He seems to get lost at times and finds himself wide open.

Up front, the Falcons seem to have found their starting five the rest of the season. They’ve settled in nicely and are playing good football for the Falcons. Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Sunday:

LT — Jake Matthews
LG — Colby Gossett
C — Drew Dalman
RG — Chris Lindstrom
RT — Kaleb McGary

Matthews is quietly one of the better left tackles in football. He’s not a big name overall despite the famous last name and bloodlines. He is consistent in the run game and sound in pass pro. A true linchpin for that offensive line.

Gossett and Dalman are solid in the run game, but have had issues in pass protection throughout the season. They’ll have a tough matchup with Cameron Heyward on Sunday.

Lindstrom is one of the better right guards in all of football. He is fantastic in the run game, utilizing his athleticism to beat defenders to the spot and has really found his game in pass protection with great footwork and hand usage.

He’s helped develop McGary into a serviceable right tackle at this point in his career. He was starting to look more and more like a bust but has found his game in the run-heavy system in Atlanta.

On special teams, kicker Younghoe Koo has been one of the better kickers in football for a few years now. While he isn’t on the level of Justin Tucker, Chris Boswell and more, he’s impressively consistent. In five seasons in the league, he’s made 110 of 125 kicks and has hovered around a 90% conversion rate over the last two years.

Punter Bradley Pinion has a monster leg for the Falcons, averaging just under 47 yards per punt and already has a 73-yarder on the season.

The Falcons are so dangerous in the return game. Patterson already has a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the year, and Avery Williams is a homerun threat every time he touches the puck, which is why the Falcons drafted him and moved him to running back.

Williams has been a bit sloppy catching punts though, so that could be an opportunity for the Steelers to capitalize and force a turnover.

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