FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In his first season as Falcons offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian is being measured by a standard that few offenses in NFL history have ever achieved.
Fairly or not, Sarkisian is coaching in the large shadow cast by the 2016 Falcons offense, which tied the 2000 Rams for the seventh-most points scored in an NFL season with 540 and averaged nearly 34 points per game. Even had Shanahan remained in charge of the offense, a regression to the mean would have likely occurred.
The most likely outcome for the offense this year, regardless of who called the plays, was probably somewhere between that record-setting high and the low mark in 2015, when Atlanta averaged 21.2 points per game.
Since his arrival, Sarkisian has said the right things. He's been adamant in pointing out that he's working to learn the Falcons' offense, not bringing wholesale change.
"My goal was to come in and get comfortable with what they had done," Sarkisian said during training camp. "And a lot of what they had done, philosophically, really sat well with me, because I had done a lot of it in my past. And then it was starting to incorporate some of the things that I really thought could help the offense and help it grow."
So, what elements has Sarkisian added to the offense? Now that we have a four-game sample size to analyze, that's exactly the question this week's After Further Review will seek to answer.
A look at the early season numbers
Before we dive into the wrinkles that Sarkisian has brought to Atlanta, let's first look at the stats from the first four games. For an explanation of how Football Outsider's DVOA is calculated, click here.
- Points per game:26 (NFL rank: No. 6)
- Yards per game:388.8 (No. 4)
- Points per drive:2.37 (No. 5)
- DVOA pass offense:20.9% (No. 14)
- DVOA rush offense:13.7% (No. 3)
Those numbers indicate that although the Falcons' offense hasn't been executing at the incredibly high level we saw for much of last season, it is still among the best in the NFL.
Turnovers are something that must also be considered: The Falcons have turned the ball over six times this season and forced only two on defense.
Three of Atlanta's turnovers have come off tipped passes, which, although they certainly count, aren't indicative of any major flaw in the system. In 2016, the most the Falcons turned the ball over on offense was twice, which occurred in the loss to Seattle. Atlanta turned the ball over three times in each of its last two games.
On the other side of the ball, last year's team had six games where it generated two-plus turnovers and failed to force any turnovers in only three games. So far in 2017, the Falcons have failed to create a turnover in three of their first four games.
The added turnovers on offense and the lack of turnovers created on defense has limited the number of snaps and drives the Falcons have had with the ball thus far, which plays a role in the diminished point and yardage totals.
Despite this swing in turnovers, the Falcons' offense remains one of the most efficient on a points-per-drive basis.
Consistency with the run game
Sarkisian has brought an added willingness to stick with the run. The Falcons have called the exact same number of run plays through the first four games this year that they did last year, 107, but the totals in each contest have been more consistent.
For example, Atlanta ran the ball 31 times while pulling away from the New Orleans Saints in Week 3 but just 22 times in its season-opening loss to Tampa Bay last year. In contrast, the Falcons have run the ball 23, 27, 28, and 29 times through their four games in 2017.
While the run totals in both season openers may look similar, they are a bit misleading. The 22 carries against Tampa Bay in 2016 were just 34 percent of Atlanta's 64 offensive plays in the loss. Meanwhile, the 23 rush attempts the Falcons had in Week 1 against Chicago were 42 percent of the 55 total plays run.
Despite averaging just 2.8 yards per carry against a stout Bears front-seven, Sarkisian kept his offense balanced and it forced Chicago's defense to remain honest.
One of the best called and well-executed drives the Falcons have had this year came on the opening possession against Green Bay, which included three passes and six runs, the final three of which came inside of the 10-yard line.
Atlanta alternated between run and pass over the first six plays of the drive, covering 76 yards and averaging nearly 6 yards per carry and 20 yards per pass.
The biggest play on that drive, a 34-yard pass to Julio Jones, was helped by the early success running the ball. Facing second-and-2, the Falcons lined up in 21 personnel – two running backs and one tight end – with Devonta Freeman in the backfield and Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu out wide.
The Packers counter this with what initially looks like a Cover-2 zone look up top and man coverage on the outside, leaving seven defenders in the box. Just before the ball is snapped, however, the strong safety begins to move closer to the line of scrimmage and the defense shifts to a Cover-1 look, which allows for better defense against the run.
Atlanta runs a play-action pass, which, on a second-and-short and after a pair of successfully runs, draws the linebackers up closer to the line of scrimmage and allows for a deep crossing route to develop behind them.
By drawing up the linebackers and the strong safety, it delays them dropping into coverage underneath the routes. The outside cornerbacks are unable to keep up with Jones and Sanu, and once their routes converge near the deep safety, confusion allows Jones to come free for a big gain.
It was a play that demonstrated just how effective the Falcons' offense can be when the run game fuels play-action passes.
"For us, our play action goes hand-in-hand with our run game," Quinn said after the win against Chicago. "When that part of our game comes alive even better, we think the run game will as well."
There has been much criticism of Sarkisian for not running the ball on fourth-and-1 against Buffalo, or on the third-and-1 play prior. While it's fair to ask why the ball wasn't given to a running back in that situation, especially after averaging 5.1 yards per carry against the Bills, the Falcons had every intention of running the ball – if Buffalo's defensive alignment allowed for that.
"We had two plays called, one for a certain look, one for another," Quinn said after the loss. We thought heading in, it would give us a good opportunity on a third-and-one to go convert it and get right back on the ball and get rolling again. We'll give them credit to have the play defended, and it was certainly a disappointing way for us to finish it."
Atlanta went to the line with the option to either call a run or a pass depending on Buffalo's alignment. This is the look Ryan saw at the line of scrimmage.
With the cornerbacks playing press coverage on the outside, and the Bills placing seven defenders in the box with the other safety creeping towards it, the Falcons anticipated a run blitz to stop Coleman short of the first down.
"We had a run opportunity there," Ryan said of the final play. "They had eight or nine guys close down into the box. I felt like it was a good opportunity for us with the play action pass, but it didn't work out."
Expecting the defense to sell-out against the run, the Falcons ran a play-action pass with Justin Hardy running a quick slant route as the primary receiver. Hardy couldn't beat the press, however, and the Bills dropped into coverage instead of surging forward to stop the run.
When Ryan turned around to throw the ball after faking the hand-off, the defense had changed and he found no lane to throw the ball.
Ryan explained the strategy of the quick, play-action pass after the game, saying: "It was an opportunity for us to try and get them to come up and then throw behind them. It didn't work out for us, which was disappointing."
Sarkisian gave his quarterback options based on the defensive alignment. Credit should be given to Buffalo for executing at a crucial point in the game.
Through the first four games, Sarkisian's dedication to the run has been a strength of his. The Falcons are averaging 4.7 yards per carry, which is partially the result of keeping defenses off. This success is important for Atlanta's play-action passing moving forward, which is what truly makes the offense dangerous.
"I've been encouraged that we've been a really committed running game," Quinn said when assessing the offense. "That part makes so much of the other part of the games come to life."
Versatility with offensive packages
Sarkisian's creativity with the offensive personnel packages is arguably his greatest strength through four games.
"The part that I like is the ability to utilize guys in different ways," Quinn said of Sarkisian. "I've loved seeing the packages where we've featured both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman together, creating opportunities for guys in space to make plays."
In an era of wide-open, pass-first football, the Falcons' offense went against the grain in 2016. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons were in three-receiver personnel packages 45 percent of the time last year, the third-least in the NFL. Instead, Atlanta led the league in 21 personnel groups with 262 plays out of that set. Denver and New England were the only teams with more than 100 snaps in 21 personnel groups.
Sarkisian has kept that classic two-back look this season, but he's added some new elements. Most notably, the increased use of Freeman and Coleman on the field at the same time.
Against Green Bay, the Falcons employed both running backs at the same time early in the game. On its first drive, Atlanta showed creativity near the goal line with this look.
With three Falcons receivers on the field, Green Bay is only able to place six men in the box. Because both Freeman and Coleman are adept runners and pass-catchers, Atlanta has an effective run-pass option.
Prior to the snap, Freeman goes in motion to the right side of the formation. Seeing that nobody shifts over to cover him and the safety remains 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, Ryan identifies the advantage in numbers on the perimeter and quickly eschews the handoff and throws the bubble screen to Freeman for a 6-yard gain and a first down.
This isn't any radicle change to what the Falcons had been doing on offense, but it's a wrinkle that Sarkisian is utilizing that maximizes the advantages Atlanta's roster possesses.
Just as Sarkisian is comfortable in using his running backs as receivers, so too is he confident in utilizing his receivers as runners. On the ensuing play after Freeman's catch, the Falcons line up in a traditional run look with an unbalanced offensive line and two receivers to the right.
Prior to the snap, Ryan sends Taylor Gabriel in motion to the left side of the formation. Just as he approaches the right tackle, the ball is snapped and Ryan hands the ball off to Gabriel for a jet sweep around the left side of the formation. After quickly handing the ball off, Ryan and Coleman fake a handoff to the right, which freezes some of the Packers' defenders.
But for a quick reaction by Damarious Randall and Kentrell Brice, Gabriel may have walked into the end zone. Even with their quick diagnosis, the Falcons picked up an easy 7 yards and got the ball in the hands of one of their most dangerous playmakers near the goal line.
This schematic creativity has made Atlanta a tough team to defend on third down. The Falcons are converting 43.2 percent of their third-down opportunities, which is ninth-best in the NFL.
"I can say this. The different packages that we use are often a factor," Quinn said after the Green Bay game. "Yesterday there was a wildcard one where Mohamed Sanu was in the backfield. There have been ones where Devonta Freeman had a certain opportunity. There was one for Sanu that had another opportunity. In the run game, it wasn't just the same run. It was different looks and new things. I thought Steve Sarkisian and the offensive staff specifically did a good job of finding ways to feature the guys."
So far this year, Atlanta has used nine different personnel packages and a vast number of formations out of those sets on third down or fourth down this season. Very rarely have the Falcons shown the same look to a defense on a critical down.
It's still early, but the initial results are promising
Despite the early success and the offensive continuity that carried over from last season, it's worth remembering Sarkisian is still only four games in as the Falcons' offensive coordinator. While he hasn't shown the highly sophisticated level of nuance that Shanahan showed late last season to set up plays early in the game that payed off in the third or fourth quarters, there is no reason to believe that won't come with more experience in calling this offense.
The Falcons are first in the NFL with 41.16 yards per drive, fourth with 2.55 points per drive and second with 6.74 plays per drive. Those stats indicate that Atlanta has been able to move the ball this season. What's held them back are turnovers, three of which have come from tipped passes. The Falcons are 31st with .132 interceptions per drive, which is uncharacteristic of this offense. Simply put, opposing defenses aren't slowing down Atlanta, mistakes are. When and if those mistakes get cleaned up, and Ryan connects on a few more deep passes, the Falcons offense could move much closer to that incredibly high standard Sarkisian is being measured against.