Everyone is talking about the Falcons’ offense…and rightfully so. Atlanta sits atop the NFC South by two games at 3-1 with a tiebreaker in their favor over Carolina and New Orleans. Atlanta has scored 152 points in their four games this season, with the second place Chargers an amazing 31 points behind the Falcons in this statistic across the league.
Adding to the lore around Kyle Shanahan’s offense is talk that Matt Ryan deserves to be the NFL’s MVP at the quarter pole mark of the season. This has come to the forefront after Ryan ripped the Panthers pass defense for 503 yards, with 300 of that being distributed to the great Julio Jones.
The Super Bowl runners up had no answer whatsoever for Jones and their young secondary was badly exposed. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t only Jones putting up numbers in that game, as nine different Falcons receivers caught passes in Carolina Week 4 and seven of those pass catchers had multiple receptions.
The week before that, it was the running game that did the damage in New Orleans. In a very efficient performance, Ryan completed two thirds of his attempts for 240 yards with Jones catching just one pass for 16 yards. However, it was Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that owned that road game. This duo ran for 194 yards plus 102 combined receiving yards in the Big Easy. Coleman ran for three short touchdowns and Freeman found pay dirt as a receiving option.
Everything is clicking on all cylinders for this offense. Clearly Ryan is much more comfortable in his second season running Shanahan’s scheme and the talent around him is better with the addition of Mohamed Sanu as a much needed complement to Jones and Alex Mack to lead the offensive line from his center position.
Last year, the Falcons offensive line was very good at the tackle positions, but got weaker the closer to the ball you went. With Mack playing at a high level at pivot, the upgrade in the front five is obvious and very significant. Chris Chester is the only struggling member of this starting five and the Falcons would be wise to bring in a guard next offseason, but nonetheless, few lines in the league are playing as well as Atlanta’s right now.
Adding to the Falcons excellent blocking, the use of the fullback also cannot be ignored. Few teams use a pure blocking fullback any more, but Atlanta is certainly one of them. Patrick DiMarco is pretty much a non factor in the passing game and watches from the sideline when Atlanta employs three wide receivers, but he is doing a great job as a pure lead blocker in the run game where he plays about 10 to 12 highly effective snaps per game.
While there is much to discuss concerning Ryan, Jones and this fantastic passing attack, lets focus on how Shanahan is using his very different pair of running backs, Freeman and Coleman.
Coleman is taller and faster than Freeman. Atlanta has done a very good job of getting Freeman into space, though, where we have seen him use his ability as an instant accelerator to take off downfield in a straight line and eat up big chunks of yardage. We see that from Coleman as a runner as well, but he needs there to be a hole to succeed. Unlike Freeman, Coleman doesn’t make space for himself very well and lacks the lateral agility to do so. He also can run high, giving tacklers a big strike zone.
Freeman is the far better pure running back and also isn’t a liability whatsoever as a receiver, where he provides a very solid dump off option at a minimum. Freeman runs with much more leverage and a better pad level than Coleman. He is far more elusive and creative, while also showing top-notch aggression and finishing ability. Freeman is rightfully the lead back for Atlanta.
Freeman has 55 carries compared to Coleman’s 40, but has rushed for nearly 200 more yards while averaging just under six yards per carry. Coleman is more of the breakaway threat and has shown that as a receiver, but has yet to when handed the ball. These two complement each other well with dissimilar skill sets, but there is no question who the superior and more valuable player is.
Atlanta’s offense has been playing at a remarkable level and putting up a ton of points as noted above, but the competition also cannot be ignored. The Falcons opened their season against the Buccaneers then traveled to Oakland, then to New Orleans and finally got their statement win over the Panthers in Atlanta. Tampa Bay and New Orleans’ defenses are amongst the worst in the league (as is Atlanta’s by the way) and the Raiders were playing terrible on this side of the ball early in the season with all their new parts not yet meshing together. It is also quite clear with little outside pass-rush and an overmatched secondary that the Panthers’ defense certainly is not where it was a year ago.
But the true tests for Shanahan, Ryan and company are coming…and coming quick.
The Falcons travel to Denver and Seattle the next two weeks. Along with the Vikings, these are two of the NFL’s three truly elite defenses and Ryan will have to navigate both in their buildings, two extremely difficult places to play.
Expect the Falcons to employ DiMarco more than usual in Denver, as the best way to attack the Broncos is to keep them in their base defense. While that is a wise tactic, it will be highly interesting to see if Atlanta’s offense can keep it up over the next two contests.