Kyle Shanahan returns to Atlanta with another title contender

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) speaks with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) speaks with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

FLOWERY BRANCH – San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan was part of only the second staff to help the Falcons reach the Super Bowl.

He was Dan Quinn’s offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016 before landing the head coaching job out West.

While history has scrutinized Shanahan’s play-calling in the Super Bowl 51 collapse, he’s gone on to have success with the 49ers and is highly regarded within the upper reaches of the NFL and in the Falcons’ inner circle.

Shanahan and the 49ers (3-2) are set to face the Falcons (2-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I’ve got nothing but respect and admiration for him,” Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews said. “I really enjoyed our time together when he was here. I learned so much.”

Matthews was drafted in 2014 and played one season for coach Mike Smith. Quinn and Shanahan arrived in 2015.

“That was my second and third year in the league,” Matthews said. “Looking back on it now, and it’s my ninth, it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago.”

Shanahan guided the 49ers to Super Bowl LIV, where they also blew a double-digit lead to the Chiefs before losing 31-20. The 49ers reached the NFC Championship game last season and appear to be title contenders early in the 2022 season.

“He’s done a really good job in San Francisco,” Matthews said. “They are a talented team. We’ve got to be on our ‘A’ game.”

Shanahan, one of the league’s top play-callers, used the outside-zone rushing attack to establish a physical brand of offense. His practices at Flowery Branch were legendary, with the linemen running from inside to outside the numbers to land their blocks.

Matthews reminisced about the orders to “run your feet” from Shanahan and the offensive coaches.

“It was that wide zone, which is similar to the stuff we kind of do now,” Matthews said. “The run game was an emphasis for us then. Run and play (action)-pass. We did a pretty good job of it in ‘15 and especially in ‘16. He really brought something special here.”

Shanahan helped former quarterback Matt Ryan become the first player in franchise history to win the league MVP award.

Shanahan’s current team is led by its rushing attack, which currently features Jeff Wilson and hybrid wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel.

Shanahan got a little feisty when asked about the play of wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

“Yeah, everyone expects numbers based off of guys playing well, and it just doesn’t always work that way,” Shanahan said to the San Francisco media Wednesday. “B.A.’s been playing really good. I thought he had his best game versus Carolina (on Sunday), his second-best game the week before, but the ball doesn’t always go that way.”

Samuel didn’t turn in a big game against the lowly Panthers, either.

“It didn’t get to Deebo that much, it didn’t get to B.A. that much,” Shanahan said. “I think we ran it 30 times. George (Kittle) got a little bit, but his times will come.”

Aiyuk has caught 17 of 27 targets for 237 yards and a touchdown.

“When we’ve gone to B.A., he’s done a hell of a job,” Shanahan said. “He had some opportunities last week that we just didn’t get it to him on which would’ve helped his stats and helped perception, but that’s all it is to me is really perception, and B.A.’s playing his (expletive) off.”

Shanahan is not big on his players amassing stats.

“I don’t base whether guys played good or bad off their stats,” Shanahan said. “I watch what they do on each play and there’s games that guys have really good stats, and we announce some MVPs of the game, and sometimes I don’t think they had a very good game.”

Like the Falcons with Cordarrelle Patterson, the 49ers have figured out how to use Samuel as a supplement to the rushing attack. The Falcons went more full-time with Patterson as a running back last year.

“What they do a good job of, and what I think Kyle does a really good job of, is he’s evolved,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “I think a lot of conventional wisdom is thinking that you’re going to turn it on, and it’s going to look like Clinton Portis and Terrell Davis, the Alex Gibbs and Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan stuff (with the Broncos).”

The common thread that went back to Shanahan’s dad is running backs coach Bobby Turner, who had planned to take a year off, but is healthy and returned before the 49ers-Rams game Oct. 3. Turner won the Dr. Z lifetime-achievement award from the Pro Football Writers of America as one of the top assistant coaches in the NFL in 2021.

“It’s really a great offense,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Kyle does a great job with them. They’ve had a lot of continuity.”

Currently Anthony Lynn, former head coach of the Chargers, is the assistant head coach/running backs coach. Turner was with the Falcons in 2015 and in 2016, when running back Devonta Freeman (1,079 in 2016) had his best season as a pro.

“Like any good coach, which he is, like a lot of guys, they evolve,” Smith said. “They run some really good gap schemes. They run a lot of good gun runs. They do a really good job with their motion, and they’ve got some really good players.”

Smith contends that Shanahan has expanded his already thick playbook.

“That’s a credit to Kyle, and he’s a really good coach, but they run multiple schemes, and they’ve got Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Aiyuk, I mean they’ve got really good players, and (Kyle) Juszczyk,” Smith said. “It’s a good challenge. There’s a reason that they’ve been in the Super Bowl, and they went to the NFC Championship game.”

It’s the players who make the plays come alive and the coaches who adjust and add new concepts.

“Everybody has their own ideas,” Smith said. “I learned something similar, but I’ve taken something from every coach I’ve worked with – offense or defense – and you make it your own. That’s why I have a lot of respect for Kyle.

“Different system, but I appreciate the way they play and how he gets his team ready. They’ve got a good culture.”

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 vs. San Francisco, 1 p.m.

Oct. 23 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

Oct. 30 vs. Carolina, 1 p.m.

Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.

Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.


Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD