Falcons lost big part of offensive identity in Sarkisian’s first year

Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
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Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

When the Falcons hired Steve Sarkisian to succeed Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator last year, I predicted that the unit would look much the same in 2017 as it did during its record-setting 2016 season. The personnel was essentially the same and Sarkisian figured to continue with the staples of "quick tempo, outside-zone runs and play-action passes."

The Falcons did rely heavily on outsize zone runs in 2017, but they played at a much slower pace and used play-action passes (throws after run fakes) much less often. The Falcons’ offense went from historically-good in 2016 to pretty good in 2017. It can be difficult to untangle all the factors that contributed to that regression but, on a macro level, I think the drastic change in offensive identity played a part.

After ranking fourth in the Football Outsiders “situation-neutral” pace metric in 2016 the Falcons ranked 24th in 2017. In 2016 the Falcons ran more play-action than any NFL team and ranked No. 2 in efficiency; last season they ranked 13th in the percentage of passes thrown off play-action even though they ranked sixth in efficiency on those plays (not including quarterback scrambles).

On that point, Bryan Knowles of Football Outsiders recently opined:

"Atlanta had the single largest play-action dropoff in 2017, going from 27 percent (of dropbacks) to 22 percent. Unlike Pittsburgh, Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian would be well advised to bring some play-action back; Atlanta had a 20.9% DVOA difference when using play-action."

DVOA is Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, a metric that incorporates every NFL play and adjusts for situation and strength of opponent. The Falcons ranked ninth in offensive DVOA last season after they were No. 1 in 2016, and dropped from first to 15th in scoring. The Falcons improved a bit defensively but that small gain was more than wiped out by the offensive regression.

The Falcons plan to focus on their red-zone execution after they were bad in that area last season, but this summer Sarkisian said he also wants more explosive scoring plays. Play-action can help with that, too. Writes Knowles: "Play-action passing is more effective (than straight drop backs) on passes of a given distance (as measured by yards per play) starting on throws that travel more than 10 yards down the field, and appears to be more effective at all further distances."

I suspect the Falcons will play at a faster tempo in 2018 than 2017. Sarkisian’s college teams embraced a speedy pace and Falcons coach Dan Quinn also is a proponent. The decreased tempo may be related to what Sarkisian described as the “growing pains” for a first-year NFL coordinator joining a successful team.

I’m less certain that Sarkisian will embrace play-action passes, another aspect that made the 2017 Falcons so good.