By establishing a successful run game on Monday night, Kyle Shanahan and the Falcons were able to use the play-action pass to effectively slice through Philadelphia's defense—especially in the first half. With an improving offensive line, great receivers and two young, talented halfbacks, Matt Ryan should be able to employ such plays with great success throughout 2015.
In reviewing the Week 1 tape, I noticed Eagles linebackers bit on the fake handoff several times. Had they not fallen for Kyle Shanahan's play-action calls, they would have been in much better positions coverage-wise and could have stopped a pair of important catches. In both of the snaps below, the LB of focus was tasked with patrolling the middle of the field in zone coverage. The PA stopped these defenders from doing that successfully.
The first play we're going to review is an eight-yard pass to Julio Jones that resulted in a first down. Julio Jones starts on the right side of the field; Tevin Coleman pretends to take a handoff in that direction, and Ryan rolls out. This baits linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who, as previously mentioned, is assigned to play zone coverage over the middle.
Then Kendricks attempts to assist in coverage, but, as he probably knew, it was too late. Ryan saw his WR open and knew where he wanted to throw.
Kendricks falls back, Maxwell can't keep up with Jones, and the Falcons move the chains. Ryan and Jones connect again six plays later for a touchdown.
Slowing down Jones is extremely difficult when you do everything right; when you slip up, even if it's for a microsecond, it puts you in a big, oftentimes irreversible, disadvantage. Kendricks probably wouldn't have broken up this pass if he did everything right. But by taking those steps to the left in anticipation of a run, he made it nearly impossible to recover. And he ensured that Jones, perhaps the most dangerous receiver in the world right now, could move across the gridiron in single coverage. First down, Atlanta.
The next example is a 23-yard catch by Roddy White. It's similar to the last one: Ryan fakes the handoff; a receiver sprints to the middle; and a Philly linebacker, this time DeMeco Ryans, falls for the play-action.
White gets separation from two defensive backs, and Ryans is slow to get into coverage. Ryan sees how open White is…
…and fires it down field for what would be an easy completion. Shortly thereafter, Atlanta gets in the end zone for yet another score.
In total Ryan completed five of seven play-action attempts, good for 96 yards and a 113.7 QB rating.
Tevin Coleman deserves a lot of credit here. By averaging four yards per carry, and by staying productive throughout the contest, he forced the Eagles to respect his ability. As we saw from 2008 through 2011, having a productive RB to compliment Ryan and his wideouts makes a big difference. If Coleman and/or Devonta Freeman give the Falcons a dangerous ground attack, we'll see many more plays like the two above.