Establish the run.
To football traditionalists, that phrase is gospel for success in the NFL. For those who have embraced the pass-first era that has come to define football, it’s an approach that is best served to keep defenses honest and a supplemental tool to throwing the ball.
Regardless of one’s stance on running the football, the Falcons showed exactly why the relationship between a team’s ground game and passing attack is so important. Despite losing to the Cardinals 34-33, the Falcons put on a masterclass in setting up play-action passes by establishing the run and varying personnel groupings.
In Arizona, Matt Ryan put together his best performance of the season. The former NFL MVP completed 30 of his 36 pass attempts for 356 yards with four touchdowns, but his numbers on play-action passes were even better. Ryan was a perfect 12-of-12 for 153 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect quarterback rating on play-action plays. The Falcons’ approach to the game had a lot to do with that.
Atlanta fell behind 20-10 in the first half against Arizona, but in the process of doing so the Falcons set themselves up for a huge second half offensively. The Falcons were perfectly balanced through the first two quarters of action with 13 runs and 13 passes.
Although Atlanta gained just 49 yards on the ground in the first half, it’s the number of attempts that are important in this case and not the yardage. By running the ball as many times as they did, the Falcons forced the Cardinals to respect their willingness to stick with the ground game despite falling behind.
“That’s the value, not the value but a value, a big value of the run game,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “You have to step up and that’s what you see some of the over, in-breaking routes you saw to (Mohamed Sanu), (Austin) Hooper, (Calvin Ridley), so those are a byproduct of the run game.”
With a couple of big runs in the first half, including a 15-yard gain by Devonta Freeman, the Falcons did much more than just go through the motions of establishing the run, they made it an effective part of their attack.
Running 13 times before halftime was just one aspect of the Falcons setting up their second-half play-action plan. How Atlanta went about running the ball was equally important.
In the first half, the Falcons ran the ball five times out of 11 personnel, three times out of 21 personnel, two times out of 13 personnel and once each out of 22 and 12 personnel groupings. The other rushing attempt in the first half was a Matt Ryan scramble.
After halftime, that pattern flipped for the Falcons. They did not run the ball at all out of 11 personnel in the second half; Atlanta instead ran it five times out of 21 personnel, and three times each out of 22 and 13 personnel. This variance coincided with how the Falcons set up their play-action passes.
Atlanta threw four play-action passes out of 11 personnel in the second half, which makes sense given the team’s commitment to running the ball out of that grouping in the first half. Those plays worked well with Ryan completing all four passes for 47 yards.
Some of the biggest pass plays for the Falcons in the second half came out of heavy personnel groupings. Remember, Atlanta ran the ball a combined eight times in the second half out of sets with a fullback and a halfback on the field, but the Falcons also threw the ball twice after halftime in those same looks and gained 50 yards on those two throws.
Within the span of three plays on their first drive of the second half, the Falcons completed a 20-yard pass to Julio Jones and gave the ball to Freeman for a 9-yard gain out of similar looks. The only key difference, outside of the receivers on the field, is what tight end Luke Stocker does on the two plays.
Not only did the Falcons dictate the personnel the Cardinals have to use by going with a heavier grouping, but it’s difficult to predict what’s coming when a team has success while making plays look similar.
Watch Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick (No. 43) on the pass play above. Reddick flows with the play and steps up a few yards as Ryan fakes the handoff to Freeman. He then hesitates briefly for a second time before turning and dropping into coverage. By then, however, it’s already too late and Ryan hits Jones for an easy 20-yard completion right over the middle of the field.
Just two plays later, the Falcons show a similar look on the run play above. When Luke Stocker motions across the formation Reddick doesn’t even react at first, having just seen a dummy motion from Atlanta’s tight end. Once the ball is snapped, Reddick doesn’t attack downfield as he should, having just been burned by doing so.
The Falcons’ willingness to be patient on the ground and throw out of traditional run sets created plenty of success for the offense in the second half. Despite ultimately losing the game, Atlanta set season highs in total yardage (444), rushing yardage (103) and points scored (33).
Quinn and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter often talk about the importance of being a balanced offense and how the run game can be used to set up the play-action pass. That’s not some breakthrough in offensive innovation, but the Falcons did just show why that approach is so important.
Arizona’s defense won’t ever be mistaken for the ’85 Bears, and they rank among the worst units, statistically, this season. But it’s difficult to picture many teams having success against a Falcons offense with as many receiving weapons as any unit in the league if Atlanta is also able to run the ball as effectively as they did on Sunday.