Kyle Shanahan's career has been a bit of a roller coaster. Since becoming a NFL offensive coordinator in 2008, Shanahan has led three amazing offenses, interspersed with a number of terrible ones. He helped the Texans lead the league in passing yardage with Matt Schaub as their quarterback back in 2009, and in Washington he designed the offense that turned Robert Griffin III into a force during his rookie season. He also oversaw RGIII's disastrous sophomore year, and later quit the Browns via handwritten note after just one season.
If you choose to read Shanahan's story as one of repeated redemption, his time with the Atlanta Falcons fits perfectly within the narrative. In 2015, Shanahan's first year in Atlanta, he oversaw the only below-average season that quarterback Matt Ryan has had in his career, although it was Ryan's first year under a new offensive scheme essentially since he'd been in the NFL.
But then Shanahan Thing happened. He has a way of barreling past the bad years, and with some accounting for extenuating circumstances—RGIII's injuries, Ryan's adjustment period, the Browns fundamental Browns-ness—Shanahan really does seem to have a knack for improving teams. And occasionally he strikes it rich. What Shanahan has done with the Falcons offense this year is nothing short of remarkable, and Sunday's NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers could well be his crowning achievement. It will also be Shanahan's last or second-to-last game as an assistant, before he moves on to his first head-coaching job with the 49ers, at least if reports this week are correct.
Ryan is having an amazing MVP year, and Shanahan has engineered an offensive scheme around him that is perfectly positioned to exploit Green Bay's weaknesses, despite Atlanta having some weak points of their own. For one thing, the Falcons don't actually have much talent in their receiving corps outside of Julio Jones, who was dinged up for much of the year and missed several games. That hasn't hurt the team because Shanahan was able to take castoffs like Taylor Gabriel and turn them into contributors. He revitalized Gabriel's career by using his speed, which is different than letting the receiver's speed dictate what kind of player he should be.
Of course, the reason Ryan could be this good is because the Falcons have pieced together a dominant offensive line. Between that line and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons have created one of the best play-action passing attacks in the league, and they've leveraged that effectively all season long. According Sports Info Solutions, the Falcons ran the play-action pass on 26 percent of all passing plays this year, more than any other team in the NFL, and averaged 10.4 yards per play, second in the league. The play-action pass has been compared to the NBA's three-point shot in terms of giving a team the most offensive bang for its buck, and Atlanta used it to create big plays by the bushel. Not only does Shanahan sometimes manage to sneak an underneath tight end free, he also gives Ryan credible checkdown receivers in the form of his backs. Freeman and Coleman combined for 105 targets this season, and per Football Outsiders DYAR rankings, they combined for almost as much value as Arizona Cardinals' star back David Johnson on fewer targets.
It's a strategy that works, but one that seems custom-built to work against their opponent this week. The Packers allow 9.2 yards per play-action pass, 29th in the NFL. And while Green Bay's safeties limit things to underneath receivers and tight ends, their corners are easy pickings for a quarterback as talented as Ryan. The Packers have been relying on backups since CB Sam Shields was put on injured reserve after a concussion in October. If Jones is indeed healthy for Sunday's game, he's going to feast on whatever match-up he gets. Even if he isn't, Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu should get plenty of easy catches against the Green Bay secondary.
The Falcons will need every last optimization, because there will be no bailout from their defense. There just is no way to stop Aaron Rodgers the way he's playing right now, and Atlanta's pass rush is about all they have going for them as a pass defense; Green Bay's offensive line and Rodgers will mitigate that. The Falcons have drawn a shootout game, and both statistically and on the matchups, it looks like Sunday could be Baylor-Texas A&M all over again: first to 60 points wins.
The only way to beat this Packers team is to overwhelm them with points. Thanks to Shanahan, the Falcons have both the talent and game plan to do just that.
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