Expect Tweaks to Falcons Red Zone Offense in 2018
The 2016 Atlanta Falcons' offense was the best in the NFL that season. In its explosive performances, the offense steam-rolled opposing teams and had little trouble scoring from within the red zone. It carried Atlanta to within half a game of securing its first Super Bowl win, coming up just short. A lot of credit is rightfully attributed to the play calling style of Kyle Shanahan, the team's offensive coordinator at that time.
Shanahan departed Atlanta to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. In his first year taking over the helm as offensive coordinator in Atlanta, Steve Sarkisian was tasked with keeping much of the team's offensive playbook intact. That alone must have been challenging — it's difficult enough adjusting to a new team and its culture. Take a look at the statistics for that year. The team ranked 23rd in red zone scoring compared to eighth the previous year. The 2017 Falcons' offense struggled for an identity. Their final play: A fourth down that came up short from within the red zone.
For the second year under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the Atlanta Falcons look to return to their 2016 form. In an interview with atlantafalcons.com, Sarkisian said of the prior season, "It was learning the players that were in place. In Year 2, I have a year in the system. Now I can make some of the tweaks that I feel like are needed for this offense to continue to grow."
What kind of tweaks can we expect?
Of course, the offense's red zone performance is a good place to look at, right? In a previous article, I mentioned that Calvin Ridley could be a potential game changer. His presence will force opposing defenses to rethink the typical strategy of just double-teaming Julio Jones. Ridley's performance in the red zone does need improvement though. However, the receiving core doesn't have to be the only solution.
In an analysis of the Falcons' red zone woes, one suggestion to improve the team's performance was to call more running plays, which could in turn, open up the play calling. The idea is that it could lead to more play action calls, which allows the quarterback to make better reads. With this in mind, let's take a look back at the Falcons' 2016 and 2017 seasons.
The 2017 Falcons' offense was actually pretty good. According to Football Outsiders, it averaged 36.87 yards per drive, second behind only the New England Patriots' 39.23 yards per drive. The problem was the team didn't finish drives with touchdowns. Too often it came up short in the red zone.
2017 and 2016 Red Zone Statistics:
Take a closer look at those red zone numbers, particularly who the targets were:
In 2017, Julio Jones saw a team-leading 19 red zone targets and received five of them for just over 25 percent and one touchdown. Devonta Freeman led all running backs with eight red zone targets, five receptions, one touchdown and a team team-leading 60 yards. This is compared to his team-leading 17 targets the previous year. In the 2017 season, Atlanta Falcons' running backs saw only 13 of a total of 72 red zone targets — not even one-fifth of the team's total.
Now consider the 2016 season. As mentioned before, the most targets were seen by RB Freeman with 17 including 12 receptions for 70.59 percent and two touchdowns. In the 2016 season, Atlanta Falcons' running backs were targeted 31 times out of a total of 95 red zone targets. Nearly one-third of the team's total red zone targets were running backs.
A Quick Summary:
In 2017, Falcons' running backs were targeted in the red zone nearly 60% less than the 2016 season. Also in 2017, the team averaged 2.28 yards on 70 rushing attempts from within the red zone. Whereas, in 2016, the team averaged 2.79 yards on 88 rushing attempts from within the red zone. While the difference in average yardage was negligible, in 2017 there was a 20 percent decrease in the number of rushing attempts from within the red zone compared to the previous year.
Sarkisian will tweak the offense in many ways in 2018. And it will be exciting to see just how he does that. Improving the team's performance in the red zone will likely be part of those tweaks. It will be interesting to see if this includes running the ball more and targeting running backs like Freeman and Coleman on pass plays more often. Such was the case in the 2016 season, and the Falcons didn't fare too badly in the red zone that year.