Falcons need roster changes for new play-caller Zac Robinson to ‘cut it loose’

Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson speaks to members of the media at the Atlanta Falcons Practice Facility, Wednesday, February 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson speaks to members of the media at the Atlanta Falcons Practice Facility, Wednesday, February 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

FLOWERY BRANCH — It’s going to take a while for Zac Robinson to figure out exactly what his Falcons offense will look like. The team’s new coordinator just got to Flowery Branch a few days ago. There are many meetings to come for Robinson and his staff, followed by the inevitable roster churn via the draft and free agency.

Personnel will determine the scheme, and opponents will influence game plans each week. But what are the traits that Robinson wants for his offense no matter how those variables change?

“I think the biggest thing is we want to be fast, we want to be physical and we want to be aggressive at all times,” Robinson said Wednesday. “We just want these guys to cut it loose and go play ball.”

The Falcons were physical under former coach Arthur Smith, who also was the offensive play-caller. Smith built his offense around grinding out rushing yards. His offense wasn’t fast or aggressive when it came to passing. Smith favored formations with two tight ends and two running backs. The Falcons had no consistent deep threat among the pass targets.

And, of course, the Falcons had major issues at quarterback. Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke were below-average starters. Robinson said “all options are on the table” at quarterback. That’s what he should say at this point, but if Ridder and Heinicke are Robinson’s options, then he’ll have the same issues as Smith in building a complete offense.

Robinson was fortunate to work with Matthew Stafford over the past three seasons. The Rams won the 2022 Super Bowl with Stafford, an ex-Georgia Bulldogs star. Stafford revived his career after lots of losing in Detroit. Robinson was his assistant QB coach in 2021 and the passing-game coordinator over the past two seasons.

The chances are low that Robinson’s Falcons quarterback will be as good as Stafford, who has what Robinson said he covets most of all with quarterbacks.

“If God himself came down here and said, ‘I want somebody to throw the football,’ it should look like Matthew Stafford,” Robinson said.

The Falcons can’t count on divine intervention to send them a quarterback who throws a perfect ball. So, what else does Robinson look for in the position?

“Those guys that just have the instincts, the feel for the game,” Robinson said. “The stuff that you can’t really put into words. Sometimes they’ve got ‘it.’ Those are the guys you are looking for.”

The Falcons have options to find him. They hold the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft. They can create significant salary-cap space to sign a free agent. Several teams may be looking to move on from quarterbacks they drafted in the first round. Getting a better QB is priority No. 1 for the Falcons.

But that’s not the only thing that must change if Robinson wants his new team to play offense like his old team. Last season, Rams coach and play-caller Sean McVay made heavy use of formations with three wide receivers and one tight end. Smith’s Falcons rarely lined up that way, and the roster construction and target distribution reflected that preference.

The 2023 Falcons had three tight ends who played at least 35% of the offensive snaps: Kyle Pitts (64%), Jonnu Smith (58%) and MyCole Pruitt (36%). Pitts and Smith saw 150 pass targets combined. Drake London was the only receiver to play more than 35% of the snaps. He saw 110 targets, while Mack Hollins was next among wide receivers, with only 30.

It’s possible the Falcons will revamp the pass-catching corps behind London and tight end Kyle Pitts. The team’s pending free agents include Pruitt and wide receivers Hollins, Van Jefferson, KhaDarel Hodge and Scotty Miller. The Falcons could drop a tight end in favor of a wide receiver and find pass-catchers who are better suited for Robinson’s plan to be fast and aggressive.

Robinson otherwise inherits assets that should help the Falcons play that style.

There’s talent at the skill positions with London, Pitts and running back Bijan Robinson. Smith never did find a way to feature those players. I thought Smith especially erred with not often getting the ball to Robinson as a pass-catcher on the outside. Smith said that was the plan when the Falcons selected Robinson No. 8 overall in last season’s draft, but it didn’t happen.

Zac Robinson on Pitts and Bijan Robinson:

“I view those guys as they are versatile, but those guys can play just tight end, those guys can play just back. We will have formation versatility to move them all over and certainly get the most out of what they do. Those guys are very special players.”

Zac Robinson also inherits a good, versatile offensive line. McVay used to lean heavily on the zone run scheme that Smith also deployed. Last season, the Rams used more “gap” scheme runs that, generally, require a more physical style than zone. Falcons offensive linemen can do both.

The passing game is where Robinson has the most work to do. I’m interested to see what he comes up with through the spring and summer. It was during this time that the 2016 Falcons developed an all-time great offense with Kyle Shanahan. He and McVay both are part of Mike Shanahan’s coaching tree.

We won’t really know about Robinson’s Falcons offense until the season opener in September.

“To say we have an exact idea of exactly what that is going to look like right now, that wouldn’t be fair,” Robinson said. “But the things that we are going to strive for, it’s always going to be about these players first and foremost. How can we provide enough clarity for these guys to just cut loose on game day?”