On September 22, 2019 the Atlanta Falcons will travel to Indianapolis to take on our Colts. In this week three match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.
The last time these two teams met in November of 2015, our Colts came out on top 24 to 21. Since 1966 these two teams have met 16 times and if you thought the Colts record against the Titans is impressive, well, it doesn’t hold a candle to the 14-2 all time record our Colts hold over these Falcons. Unfortunately for us those 16 games don’t mean much when it comes to this Sunday’s game. Hopefully the boys in blue can add to their illustrious record.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week three.
At first I believed that predicting what the Atlanta Falcons and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter would attempt to do against our Colts would be one of the more difficult tasks I had undertaken during my time at Stampede Blue. In order to really understand why, without adding a lot of text, this article from Jon Marchant over at Bucs Nation is a good place to start. The long and short of it is this; as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Koetter, a disciple of the Air Coryell system, handed over play calling duties to Todd Monken, a disciple of the famed Air-Raid offense, which took the team away from the more traditional Air-Coryell and into the 21st century. When this happened the Bucs offense, turned into an efficient, stat compiling machine.
In 2019, Monken is the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns and Koetter is starting his second run as OC of these Atlanta Falcons. Part of me believed that Koetter had to see the success of those Air-Raid concepts and would look to implement them heavily and part of me believed that a mixture of ego and familiarity will push Koetter into using the type of high risk, high reward play calling that served him well during the early portion of his career.
When I turned on the tape, the first quarter of week one told me that familiarity and perhaps, ego, had won out after all.
If you’re not familiar with the Air Coryell this article from Bleacher Report is a pretty good look at the offensive system’s history and what it’s all about. The $0.02 version; a lot of 5 and 7 step drop backs, slow developing deep routes that attempt to manipulate safeties and big chunk plays are the goal here. Think more Bruce Arians, less Frank Reich.
Fair warning: I was watching Sunday Night Football at the same time I was recording these clips so it’s probably a good idea to mute the videos. There might be audio of a Wendy’s spicy chicken commercial on the second video. I’ll make sure to not do that in the future. This is what I get for trying to mix work and pleasure.
Falcons zone left PA naked boot flood to wide side of the field. pic.twitter.com/jW3iU34HLU— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
At times the Falcons are going to send three receivers to one side of the field to attack all three levels of the defense. It can be an effective concept against zone coverage when there are more receivers than defenders and the safety has to make a decision of who to cover.
Another concept attacking multiple levels
Falcons another flood concept. pic.twitter.com/zYoOpIbl0d— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
If Matt Ryan had time to do anything with this play he would have read his routes from high to low. His deepest receiver was double covered by a corner and safety, his next deepest receiver was also double covered, which leaves his receiver who was one on one running a drag from right to left. These are the types of slow developing plays that we’ll see a lot of come Sunday.
High low concept
Falcons high low concept with TE. Will see this look a lot, manipulates CB, fits ball in under safety. Not afraid to take short throw if there, or dump off if nothing else is available. pic.twitter.com/82XcjWp8wq— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
The Falcons have used a lot of concepts similar to this play and it seems like a safe bet we’ll see more of them Sunday. The outside receiver runs a five yard in breaking route while the tight end lined up in the slot runs a ten yard out. This play puts stress on the cornerback who is playing cover 2. As soon as he steps inside with the receiver Matt Ryan knows he will have an open window to throw to his tight end.
This isn’t the kind of deep shot I’ve been telling you about, but they can’t all be. Instead this focuses on the same principles of every offense; manipulating defenders and capitalizing once they make a decision. The difference is really just how much risk versus reward is involved in the throw that follows.
Situationally the Falcons have plenty of short concepts designed to move the chains and to set up other plays they want to work in.
Here on 2nd and 10
Falcons, interesting RPO look. Alex Mack works to 2nd level, oline is run blocking, but receiver runs out route. pic.twitter.com/rM6zBV2vnY— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
I’ve talked a lot about the run-pass option and if you want to refresh your memory click here and scroll down to the section on RPO’s. I’ve talked a lot about them but this one is different. The RPO’s that I’ve talked about in the past have all had the option to run or pass based on the actions of a linebacker. In that instance the quarterback reads what he does and chooses to hand it off or throw it at that point.
Here Matt Ryan has the same choice, run or pass, but he’s basing his decision on his pre-snap read. This doesn’t look like an RPO due to the fact that the receiver runs an out route instead of a slant over the middle, but it doesn’t have to. Ryan sees that the corner is lined up 8 yards off of his receiver and he takes what the defense gives him. Had the corner been in press, he’s handing this ball off.
Another short concept on 3rd and 5, the very next play
Falcons 3rd and 5, beating man blitz. pic.twitter.com/PO9APESgha— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
Here the Falcons beat the blitz and pick up the first down. The Vikings sent the house, which I’m absolutely in favor of considering how long the Falcons want Matt Ryan to sit in the pocket on most plays but the Falcons were ready. Due to the blitz the Vikings ended up with a linebacker trying to cover Julio Jones running a drag across the field. That is always, 100% of the time, a mismatch. Had Julio gone deep the safety over the top would have picked him up, but that linebacker was responsible for covering the receiver if he ran a crossing route and he was hoping, more than anyone, his teammates were able to hit Matt Ryan before he got the throw off.
Falcons always looking deep, here with the checkdown. pic.twitter.com/4OgrQmvrHo— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
Matt Ryan wanted to throw this ball to the receiver at the bottom of the screen. As soon as the DB’s switched his man had a step on the defender who didn’t have help over the top. You can see Ryan start to step and his throwing motion starts before feeling the pressure in his face, having to step up and take the dump off. If Ryan doesn’t have the pressure in his face this is likely 6 points. High risk, high reward, we’ll get into the talent they have in a bit but if I had to bet on the Falcons receiving corps one on one against any group of DB’s in the league, I’m taking the Falcons receivers every time.
Falcons zone right FB lead pic.twitter.com/CG37MBlUgn— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
The Titans are another team that likes to use this sort of zone concept with a lead fullback.
Falcons zone run pic.twitter.com/E0nNCIsm68— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
We will see traditional gap blocking at times but I expect to see a heavy dose of Devonta Freeman reading his line as it slides either direction working to get to get on blocks at the second level.
Something that I feel I have to mention is the fact that in my research I came across the fact that Dirk Koetter uses the Erhardt-Perkins system and I’ve been telling you he uses the Air Coryell, so which is it?
The Erhardt-Perkins is more so a language of concepts in various formations than a system with an agenda. It can be used in a multitude of ways to accomplish anything. It works to simplify a complex system for the quarterbacks, receivers and running backs. With that said Koetter uses the Erhardt-Perkins to run his version of an Air Coryell system. So before anyone in the comments said “well ackchyually...” here’s your explanation.
This scheme, perhaps more than others requires that it’s quarterback be able to progress through reads and make good decisions. It’s the reason Peyton Manning was amazing, those Colts teams used the Air Coryell to move the chains and hit on big play after big play. It wasn’t because Manning had the biggest arm or was the most accurate passer, it’s because he could read a modern NFL defense better than anyone who has ever played the game.
Matt Ryan will need to be able to identify what coverage the Colts are in and then determine which Colts defender has made a decision that will create an open throwing lane. He’s going to key on the safeties, wait for them to make a decision and once they do he will look to exploit it.
I could try to convince you that the Colts defense will be able to eliminate the big play but that’s just not realistic. This Falcons offense will hit multiple long passes on Sunday, from my perspective it’s not really a question of if they can do it, but how many times the secondary allows it and how the defense reacts in the plays that follow.
For his career former league MVP Matt Ryan has averaged almost 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions per season. Ryan came into the league in 2008 and worked with Dirk Koetter for three seasons from 2012 to 2014. In that span Ryan averaged 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. In 2015 with Koetter off with the Buccaneers, the Falcons brought in Kyle Shanahan and his west coast offense. In 2017 Steve Sarkisian took over as offensive coordinator but kept the west coast offense in place. From 2015 until 2018 Matt Ryan averaged 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
I’ve given you all of these numbers not because they prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt but instead to show that if nothing else the Air Coryell system Matt Ryan is currently running has historically lived up to it’s high risk, high reward reputation.
Currently Matt Ryan is on pace to throw for 40 touchdowns and 40 interceptions. Now obviously that’s not going to happen. 40 touchdowns is possible but at some point Ryan will settle back into this system and make fewer mistakes.
Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback. He’s never thrown more than 17 interceptions in a season, yet this year he has been willing to throw up so many 50/50 balls and not all of them have worked out. He’s taking big risks and he’s been rewarded at times for his trouble.
This is 3rd and 6
Falcons, there aren't a lot of offenses that are willing to take a deep shot on 3rd and 6 but maybe they should? pic.twitter.com/AbsB9cLF6C— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 17, 2019
The ball was placed near the 35 yard line which is near their kickers range. Instead of running a short concept to get the first down or get enough to make the field goal more makeable, Matt Ryan takes his shot in the end zone and it pays off big time.
And then there’s this
Falcons Matt Ryan throwing picks at historic rate. Maybe. I haven't actually done the research on that, he is just chuckin' 'em up this year though. Difference in offensive philosophy, Coryell take risks/shots vs. more methodical WCO pic.twitter.com/4ZbqIFsSj3— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
So the first time I watched this play, I really thought he was throwing it away. The more I watched it, the less sure I am. All I know is that this isn’t an interception that we’re likely to see him throw again.
Ryan has missed several throws he normally makes
Falcons, another high low. Matt Ryan misses high, throwing late in 4th down by 3 scores. pic.twitter.com/N0VD58A8Uh— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
And he’s missed a lot of them high. This is usually caused by a shortened step before throwing the ball, which is usually caused by getting hit a lot while standing in the pocket. I have to believe that this isn’t something that will continue as the season progresses. A QB of his caliber will work to correct this issue.
Falcons, Ryan throws an inaccurate pass behind his receiver. The ball is tipped and picked. pic.twitter.com/ql33dkvmmo— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 17, 2019
At first I thought this ball had to have been tipped but I went back and looked again and it wasn’t. Matt Ryan threw the ball well behind his receiver who tipped it up for the interception. Mistakes happen but this was an unforced error for the QB.
Some things just aren’t fair
Falcons, Matt Ryan doesn't realize how easy he has it. pic.twitter.com/eD5p0QxpDa— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 17, 2019
Matt Ryan has some great receivers to throw two and if you don’t know who Julio Jones is I assume you’re reading this article by mistake.
Panic! at the Stadium
Falcons, Ryan under pressure. Makes mistake, throws INT. pic.twitter.com/hcpl6KCDxa— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 17, 2019
Matt Ryan panics under pressure, throws the ball up to Julio who is unable to make a play and the pass is intercepted. Again, this isn’t something we can count on, on Sunday.
Matt Ryan is still a good quarterback who has made a few bad plays. I do not believe this is a new trend that we can expect to see from him moving forward. Instead, this has been a bump in the road that has combined installing a new offense with a chance in philosophy that Ryan may have to reel in some himself. Malik Hooker and the Colts secondary will have their opportunities to make a play on the ball on Sunday but I don’t expect that Matt Ryan will continue gift wrapping picks for his opponents.
So far this season the Atlanta Falcons have struggled to move the ball on the ground. Marlon Mack currently has 11 more carries and 95 more yards than the entire Falcons team. There are a few reasons for this but it’s my opinion that it doesn’t have much to do with the Falcons stable of running backs.
Devonta Freeman is as good of an all around back as you can find, assuming he is healthy which doesn’t seem to be often. Ito Smith is a capable backup who is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.
With it only being week three, Freeman is healthy
Falcons Freeman looking healthy. pic.twitter.com/jr99rfVjkq— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
And he can scoot.
Ito Smith gets in on the action
Falcons, Ito Smith bouce pic.twitter.com/Kj74LpoSFj— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
Smith is quicker than fast and has shown an ability to make defenders miss in the open field. He is a very capable RB2 that most teams would be very lucky to have. The drop off between he and Freeman isn’t large.
Freeman is dangerous catching the ball
Falcons, PA screen to Freeman. Shows great acceleration. Great execution from entire team. pic.twitter.com/f4eavxyeCQ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 17, 2019
In part because historically he’s been heavily used in the passing game and partially because he really does have a great burst and an ability to gain a lot of yards in a hurry.
Neither man has a great history of fumbling the football. Due to that fact in this game I hope the defense is more concerned with making the tackle than punching the ball out as forcing a fumble isn’t likely and one miss and a guy like Freeman could be gone in an instant.
Ready to meet the best group of pass catchers in the NFL?
It really doesn’t matter if Pierre Desir is healthy for this game... alright maybe it matters some, but not much.
Julio Jones is a monster. He is practically uncoverable. You can forget one on one coverage. It just won’t work consistently. If you bracket Jones with two defenders than you have to worry about Calvin Ridley who has developed the absolute trust of Matt Ryan. If you double up Jones and Calvin Ridley tripped at the snap they still have talented tight end Austin Hooper and highly valuable WR3 Mohamed Sanu, ready to make a play.
I really like the Colts secondary this season and beyond but I just don’t know that there’s any way they can realistically keep this receiving corps in check for all four quarters.
Remember that chemistry with Ridley
Falcons, 1 on 1 coverage on the outside. Just takes a shot. It's a beautiful touch pass, just throws ball up and lets Ridley go get it. Either a lot of trust in his guy or Matt Ryan said YOLO right before he let this one fly. pic.twitter.com/DrStyGx7Q9— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
Ryan throws this ball before Calvin Ridley had beaten his man. Actually Ridley was behind his defender. If Matt Ryan is throwing this pass and their WR2 is going out and making this play, do our guys actually stand a chance in the secondary?
Preparing to take a hit
Falcons, 1st and 20. Julio Jones makes a tough catch. pic.twitter.com/TkdRZgTkKO— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 17, 2019
Julio Jones goes over the middle knowing where both the corner and the deep safety were on this play. As the ball gets ther you can see him duck his head as he’s bracing to take the hit. This isn’t a flashy highlight reel catch but it shows his concentration and willingness to make a tough catch even if a big hit is coming.
If your goal is to be the best WR
Falcons. Julio. Insane. pic.twitter.com/GaJUS0gbgo— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 17, 2019
In the NFL and your name isn’t Julio Jones, you should just quit now.
Yes that’s a catch.
This group of receivers is ridiculously talented and if this were 7 on 7 football in shorts, our Colts wouldn’t stand a chance. Luckily for us, the Falcons do have to field more than just skill positions.
The Atlanta Falcons, like most teams, had an offensive line problem going into the 2019 off season and like most teams they vowed to fix it. Unlike most teams the Falcons put their money where their mouth is and took two offensive linemen in the first round in guard Chris Lindstrom out of Boston College and Kaleb McGary out of Washington.
In last April’s Stampede Blue draft guide I scouted more than 30 offensive linemen and neither Lindstrom nor McGary received first round grades from me. That’s not to say that the Falcons reached, Lindstrom is absolutely a perfect fit schematically for what these Falcons want to do. McGary... well it’s a little more difficult for me to justify the McGary pick in the first round. I absolutely love Kaleb McGary’s story, if you have time, seriously go read it.
McGary has struggled at times and at other times he has looked good though he has split time early in the season with Ty Sambrailo as he gets back into football shape after having yet another heart surgery this off season. Seriously.
Rookie Chris Lindstrom tried to play through a broken foot that he suffered in week one and that went about as well as you would expect. He will miss quite a bit of time. Starting at right guard in his place is Jamon Brown. Brown is a passable right guard but he is beatable. I feel good about Denico Autry’s prospects to log another sack on Sunday.
Alex Mack will start, as always, at center. Alex Mack seems like he has always been and somehow always will be one of the best centers in football.
In the off season the Falcons also went out and signed left guard James Carpenter away from the stellar New York Jets offensive line. Carpenter is average at best and beat out the big money free agent signee, Jamon Brown who now gets to start anyway.
At left tackle is Jake Matthews who is a good but not great left tackle.
Considering everything this line has been through they played pretty well last Sunday against the Eagles. They did only give up one sack, though that was mostly due to Matt Ryan moving really well in the pocket and his ability to get the ball out quickly when needed. Ryan did face constant blitzes and pressure and was hit quite a few times.
Falcons fans don’t seem to care about those things, they just care there was only one sack, which is an interesting way to look at things. Either way, I think the Eagles showed the way in regard to blitzing this offensive line.
In the run game they have struggled to come together in any real way to open holes with the zone run schemes they like to use. Obviously as this young season moves on the line could find their grove and this could change but thus far they haven’t been great opening holes for their backs.
Their scheme is great for defensive lines
Falcons offensive line and scheme will give Colts defense opportunities pic.twitter.com/PAQIpuJSFs— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
The Vikings have some very talented pass rushers, however, the time that some of the Falcons plays take to develop should provide plenty of chances to take shots at Matt Ryan.
This looks bad
Falcons offensive line a liability. pic.twitter.com/BEF6jtCr80— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
But McGary is a rookie and this was his first game. With that said, I’m pretty excited to watch him battle with Justin Houston all day. I think Houston will have a large advantage.
This play is interesting
Falcons run game. Slow to get off of combo blocks. pic.twitter.com/iO3xN6FlhK— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 16, 2019
Both combo blocks get good movement upfield but neither double team releases when it seems like they should. Part of me believes that the Eagles defenders might have been holding and part of me believes Kaleb McGary just didn’t time his release well, while the backside double team was just late.
This offensive line didn’t play terribly in week two, but it is a weak link for this Falcons team. I expect Matt Eberflus to do everything he can to get to Matt Ryan to try to force a few more mistakes from the talented quarterback.
This matchup is troubling for our Colts. So far the defensive pass rush has been inconsistent, though ultimately productive and failing to force a turnover from Marcus Mariota never makes fans feel great.
There isn’t much of a question that the Falcons receivers have an advantage over the Colts defensive backfield given that fact I’m still not sure what approach they plan to take. Do they use man coverage and continue to let Malik Hooker roam the deep middle, just waiting for Matt Ryan to underestimate his speed? Do they use more zone and try to limit big plays? Last season my answer would easily have been “zone” this season it’s anyone’s guess.
The Falcons are going to look to hit multiple big plays on Sunday. The Colts defense has played lights out to start the season but this will be their most difficult test to date. As is usually the case, the difference in week three will likely be made in the trenches.