The Atlanta Falcons weren’t the most dominant team during the regular season. They finished 11-5, two games better than the Buccaneers, and were in danger of losing the NFC South late in the year.
What they were, however, was smart. The Falcons, led by head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, are one of the most well prepared teams in the NFL. They consistently draw up terrific game plans to take advantage of their strengths, as well as their opponents’ weaknesses.
As a result, there are several things the Falcons do that frustrate other teams to no end. These five techniques and strategies drive opponents up a wall, both offensively and defensively.
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Stunts on the defensive line
The Atlanta Falcons’ pass rush was the worst in the league last season. They had just 19 sacks and struggled to generate even the slightest bit of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This season, they improved greatly with Vic Beasley alone recording 15.5 sacks, which led the NFL. So how did they get so much better in that department? Creativity up front.
The Falcons like to use stunts on the defensive line, which can confuse the opposing pass protection. Beasley can fake to the edge only to have his defensive tackle crash down against the tackle, allowing him to loop to the inside for a free run at the quarterback. They use the same technique on the other side with Dwight Freeney, now that Adrian Clayborn is out for the year. The Patriots’ weakness up front is in the middle of the line, so generating pressure against their guards and center is the way to go – and stunts make that easier to do.
Using their overall team speed on defense
The Falcons aren’t just fast on offense. Their defense is reminiscent of Seattle’s from a few years ago when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, boasting a great deal of speed on that side of the ball. Whether it’s Vic Beasley on the edge, Keanu Neal at safety or Deion Jones at linebacker, the Falcons’ defense is one of the fastest in the NFL. For teams that don’t feature as much speed on offense, that can be somewhat frustrating and troublesome.
Atlanta’s defenders rally to the ball as a cohesive unit, limiting the number of yards after the catch. That’s huge when attempting to prevent big plays in the open field, which the Patriots like to take advantage of. Because so many of their routes are across the field and typically range in the short to intermediate levels, the Falcons have to make sure they have 11 guys surrounding the ball carrier, preventing guys like Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan from breaking tackles for big gains.
Protecting the football and avoiding turnovers
The Falcons turned the ball over just 11 times all season, which was tied for the fewest in the NFL with the New England Patriots. However, the difference between the two is that the Falcons have done a better job protecting the football of late than the Patriots. Atlanta has exactly zero giveaways in their last four games and just one in the last six. For a defense, that’s incredibly frustrating. Forcing turnovers is a huge part of a team’s success, and it’s a reason the Falcons have won their last six games.
The Patriots will get a taste of their own medicine on Sunday as the Falcons hardly ever turn the ball over, and that’s not likely to change this weekend. Nothing drives a defense and the coaching staff crazy more than the inability to take the ball away, which few teams are able to do against the Falcons.
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Spreading the ball around to different receivers
No quarterback spreads the ball around to his receivers better than Matt Ryan. In fact, no quarterback in NFL history did a better job of that than Ryan did this season. He threw a touchdown pass to 13 different receivers in 2016, which is a league record. It’s not only a testament to how many weapons the Falcons have, but how confident Ryan is in getting them the ball.
He’s far from reliant on Julio Jones to make plays, which is what makes the offense so dangerous. Instead, Ryan frustrates opponents by throwing the ball to his various receivers, keeping defenders on their toes. Coaches aren’t able to simply double-team Jones and call it a day. It takes a creative coach to slow the Falcons down, which is what makes it so hard to game plan against Atlanta.
Utilizing their running backs in the passing game
What makes the Falcons so difficult to defend is their versatile duo of running backs. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are dynamic backs who can impact the game in a multitude of ways. Not only are they great on the ground, but both have the ability and flexibility to split out wide as a wide receiver. Why is this so frustrating? Because so few teams do it, thus making it difficult for opponents to game plan for that sort of versatility. They’re too physical to be covered by smaller cornerbacks in the slot, but linebackers aren’t fast enough to stick with them in coverage. Safeties would make the most sense to match up with Coleman and Freeman, but that prevents defenses from playing Cover 2 with two safeties over the top – something that’s usually ideal against Julio Jones and Atlanta’s bevy of weapons.