Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. 
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

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

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.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.