Kyle Shanahan Will Make Falcons Offense Even More Dangerous

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 19, 2015

USA Today

The acquisition of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is an inspired hire by the Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons' organizational approach to the 2014 season was completely wrong. Shanahan's inclusion to a new coaching staff, though, will take advantage of the Falcons' greatest strengthits offenseand make it even better. 

The running game will improve and wide receiver Julio Jones will become even more dynamic. 

Last season's failures stemmed from an incorrect assumption that the team needed to be tougher or more physical when it simply needed better overall schemes to take advantage of the talent on the roster. The team hired the right offensive coordinator Sunday to take an already-talented unit to the next level. 

ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported that the offensive coordinator will join the Falcons as part of a package deal with team's leading head coaching candidate, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn: 

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

Falcons are hiring Kyle Shanahan as their OC, per league source. Shanahan and Dan Quinn planned to be package deal.

Shanahan was coveted around the league, and the Falcons jumped on the opportunity to hire an experienced play-caller before he had the opportunity to accept another position.

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It's an important hire based the belief it was done to help facilitate the future hire of Quinn as the team's head coach. Quinn will be a first-time head coach with a defensive background. Whereas, Shanahan has been an offensive coordinator since 2008. 

Shanahan will help establish an identity on offense, and the new head coach won't have to worry about a floundering first-time play-caller. 

Rankings for Shanahan offenses
TeamYearTotal offenseRun offensePass offense

The coordinator recently left a very similar situation that didn't end well.

Shanahan requested that he be released from his contract with the Cleveland Browns after internal disagreements about the team's quarterback situation, a lack of commitment to add playmakers and issues with the front office. 

Despite Shanahan's short-lived tenure in Cleveland, one point shouldn't be overlooked. The coordinator did an above-average job during trying circumstances. There are now those around the league who believe the Browns were foolish to let him walk. 

ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi cited an unnamed source, who has worked with the Browns' previous regimes, that Shanahan's departure stemmed from organizational dysfunction. 

This reflects a team administration and culture that still is embryonic and does not have any clear vision on how to operate yet. 

Do you know how many coaches want to be someplace else? There are coaches that are always unhappy, all the time. But they’re not let out like that because it creates a dangerous precedent.

While Shanahan's overall job with the Browns was muddled by a five-game losing streak to end the season, the coordinator was at the top of his game prior to a string of circumstances that eventually caused the collapse. 

Through the first five weeks of the season, the Browns offense was rolling. The unit even ranked among one of the league's most efficient offenses. SI.com's Doug Farrar identified Shanahan as one of the NFL's best coordinators. Discussion started that Shanahan could be a one-and-done coach for the Browns as he awaited an opportunity to become a head coach (NOTE: He did interview for the Buffalo Bills opening). 

However, a devastating season-ending injury to the Browns' Pro Bowl center, Alex Mack, sent shock waves throughout the Browns offense. Cleveland lacked depth up front, and the team's running attack struggled as the team failed in an attempt to find the right combination among its offensive interior. 

Without a strong running attack, the Browns' quarterbackswhether it was Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manzielfaltered. 

Shanahan previously built a few top-notch passing attacks during his time as a coordinator, but it's all based off the ability to establish a strong run game and then attack a defense down field with play-action passes. 

The fundamental building block of Shanahan's offense—which dates back to his father, Mike, leading the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl victories in the late 1990s—is the offense's reliance and commitment to zone blocking, particularly the zone stretch. 

After four years with the Washington Redskins, Shanahan tried to quickly establish his identity as the new coordinator with the Browns. 

What were the first two plays he called during the 2014 season? Outside zone runs. 

Browns' fist zone stretch against Steelers in Week 1
Browns' fist zone stretch against Steelers in Week 1Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The above picture is the second of those runs. 

With any zone-blocking call, the entire line is stepping in unison toward a certain direction. They're not blocking a man, though. They're blocking an area and anyone that enters that area. 

In this particular case, the Browns ran an outside zone to the the right. 

The aiming point for running Ben Tate was outside of the two tight ends to the strong side of the play. However, the beauty of this system is it allows the running back to read the opening holes and cut accordingly. 

Three lanes opened up for Tate during this particular play. The running back decided not to run wide. He instead saw the second lane and turned it up for a seven-yard gain.

What's more important is what the offensive line accomplished during this play. 

This particular type of offense requires a commitment to more athletic linemen. So-called "phone booth" blockers need not apply. A much heavier emphasis is placed on lateral agility, technique and overall athleticism. Sometimes, the offense will sacrifice blockers who are much stouter at the point of attack in exchange for an undersized lineman who can move and get to the second level (the linebackers) more effectively. 

In the example provided, the Browns offensive linemen effectively executed three hook blocks to open the aforementioned running lanes. 

Below is the pre-snap alignment by the Pittsburgh Steelers defense: 

Pittsburgh Steelers' pre-snap alignment
Pittsburgh Steelers' pre-snap alignmentCredit: NFL Game Rewind

The Browns right guard (John Greco), left guard (Joel Bitonio) and left tackle (Joe Thomas) got their heads across defenders who were lined up closer to the side of the play than they initially were. 

These are the types of blocks that are regularly required to effectively run the system. 

For the Falcons, it's almost a perfect fit for the current personnel on the roster. 

Four out of Atlanta's projected starting five along the offensive line will benefit from playing in one of the NFL's purest zone-blocking schemes. 

It starts with center Joe Hawley, who will be returning from season-ending knee surgery. At 302 pounds, the center has never been very stout in the middle of the offensive line. But he excels when asked to move or pull. He will now be the tone-setter for the Falcons offensive line. 

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 08:  Clay Matthews #52 of the Green Bay Packers defends against  Jake Matthews #70 of the Atlanta Falcons in the third quarter at Lambeau Field on December 8, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Left tackle Jake Matthews struggled after becoming the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. The first-year blocker improved as the season progressed, though. Like Hawley, Matthews isn't an overwhelming offensive lineman. He's far more of a technician and arguably the best athlete of the bunch. The new scheme will cater to his strengths. 

In Shanahan's scheme, right guard Jon Asamoah will simply be returning to what he does best. As a member of the Illinois Fighting Illini, the guard was an excellent zone blocker in the team's heavy zone-read offense. He eventually became a third-round pick based on his play at the collegiate level, and he should excel returning to his roots. 

Right tackle Ryan Schraeder didn't assume starting right tackle responsibilities until Week 8 of the season. Once he was inserted into the lineup, though, the unit started to build chemistry and improved greatly over the second half of the season. At 6'7" and 300 pounds, Schraeder has enough length and good enough movement skills to maintain the starting spot entering next season. 

The one concern along the Falcons offensive line falls at the feet of veteran left guard Justin Blalock. The eighth-year veteran started 125 games during his career. But he's not an ideal guard for the system. The 326-pound interior blocker is the team's best drive blocker. He's just not as athletic as the others. Blalock should be able to survive in Shahanan's offense, but he's not an ideal option. 

Former Florida State Seminoles offensive line coach Rick Trickett perfectly explained, via Offensive Line Tips, why the guards have to be athletic to excel in this particular system. It's a matter of aiming points: 

Offensive Line Tips @OLineTips

Angles to LB's on Wide Zone/Stretch/Outside Zone - Rick Trickett FSU O-Line Coach. http://t.co/wnCdwKXz04

With a running scheme better suited for the majority of the team's offensive line, the Falcons should expect an improvement over their 24th-ranked run offense. 

It's also a system that can help running back Devonta Freeman, who played behind Trickett's offensive lines at Florida State, quickly develop into the team's starting running back. 

Shanahan also helped develop late-round or undrafted running backs into effective starters. He did so with Arian Foster, Alfred Morris and Isaiah Crowell. The Falcons should be expected to add one or two prospects at the position later in the draft process. 

Improved play from the offensive line and a more productive ground game will open up the Falcons' already-potent passing attack. 

Jones finished third in the NFL with 1,593 receiving yards. His numbers could be even better under Shanahan's tutelage. 

The coordinator's system historically relied heavily on the X-receiver. The normal progression in the passing game consists of the X-receiver serving as the No. 1 target with a heavy emphasis on the tight end as the second option. 

Andre Johnson posted the best two seasons of his career when Shanahan was calling plays in Houston. Pierre Garcon led the NFL in targets during the coach's final season in Washington. 

Top targets in a Shanahan offense
2008Andre JohnsonTexans1151701,575
2009Andre JohnsonTexans1011701,569
2010Santana MossRedskins931461,115
2011Jabar GaffneyRedskins68115947
2012Pierce GarconRedskins4467633
2013Pierre GarconRedskins1131841,346
2014Andrew HawkinsBrowns63113824

Despite the obvious production from elite receivers, it may be even more impressive what the coordinator accomplished with Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney and Leonard Hankerson when he didn't have a true top target. 

Jones, meanwhile, is already one of the league's finest wide receivers. He finished the 2014 campaign with career highs in receptions (104), targets (164) and yardage. With Shanahan at the helm, Jones can become even more productive, especially when another caveat is factored into the equation. 

Shanahan has never coached a true franchise quarterback. Matt Schaub, Robert Griffin III, Brian Hoyer and others sprinkled into the mix don't come close to the caliber of passer Matt Ryan currently is. 

The offense may use less bootleg action with Ryan behind center, but the Falcons quarterback could be deadly with a strong offensive line and a legitimate running game setting up the rest of the offense. 

These expected improvements within Atlanta's offense will make the Falcons a team to contend with in 2015. 

The eventual hire of Quinn and his upcoming overhaul of the team's porous defense can make the Falcons a complete team. It will be Shanahan's offense, though, that will be the driving influence for any early success the team experiences under the new regime.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFC South for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.


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