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  1. The Atlanta Falcons, fresh off a crushing defeat in Super Bowl LI, shocked just about everyone when it was announced they’d be replacing departing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who’s leaving for the 49ers head job, with Alabama’s Steve Sarkisian. The biggest question on Falcons fans minds is, how much will Sarkisian alter the offensive system that produced the NFL’s most prolific offense? It’s a difficult question to answer for the very same reason people were so shocked by the hiring: Sarkisian has called only one game — Alabama’s loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff final — since being fired by USC in the middle of the 2015 season. We can’t say for sure how Sark’s offense will look in Atlanta, and we don’t know how his time as an offensive analyst in Tuscaloosa affected his offensive philosophy, but let’s try to figure out what changes might be in store for the NFC champs based on the offenses he ran as a college head coach. We’ll start with the running game… There are two basic families of running plays in football: Man(or power) blocking and zone blocking. Man blocking is more of a downhill style, with pulling guards and kick-out blocks. Zone blocking is more side-to-side, with lines trying create cut-back lanes for backs. Now, most NFL teams feature both of these styles in their playbooks. The Falcons, under Shanahan, were one of the few teams that didn’t. They were a zone-blocking team through and through, and their run of choice was the outside zone, which is a perimeter run. https://streamable.com/anxxt While Sarkisian will surely sprinkle in some outside zone in Atlanta, expect to see a whole lot more of those downhill runs that Shanahan rarely called. Here’s what Sarkisian told FOXSports.com in 2014 while at USC… This will surely have an affect on the offensive line, which was built for the zone-running style, and RB Devonta Freeman, who is most dangerous when he finds those cutback lanes zone runs are designed to create. It should also have an affect on Matt Ryan. The Falcons’ passing and running games meshed so well under Shanahan, they could not be considered separate entities. The outside zone set up the play-action passing game, which was the best in the NFL in 2016. Per Football Outsiders’ charting data, no team used play-action more often (26% of the time) and only one team (Washington) averaged more yards-per-play. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports Ryan will also be in shotgun (and the pistol) more often than he was during his MVP season. Sarkisian’s Washington and USC teams spent most of their snaps in the gun, which allowed them to feature run-pass options, a cornerstone of his offense. Those plays feature a pre- or post-snap read that tells the QB to either hand the ball off to his back or to flip the ball out to a receiver running a quick route. Atlanta’s running game may not be nearly as effective if it does, in fact, feature more shotgun runs. In 2016, the Falcons rushing average dropped by nearly a yard when it ran out of the gun compared to when it ran from under center. And if the running game isn’t as effective, the passing game will almost certainly take a hit. Here’s one area will Atlanta’s offense won’t change: The Falcons are still going to go fast. Per Football Outsiders, the Falcons ranked fourth in the league in “situation neutral” pace. Sarkisian ran a no-huddle offense as the head coach of Washington before bringing it to USC. He should also bring it to Atlanta, where the Falcons are already comfortable with higher tempos. Now, all of this is just speculation at this point. For all we know, Sarkisian won’t change a thing about Atlanta’s offense. Maybe they keep running those outside zones from under center, and Ryan doesn’t have to adjust after the best year of his career. But football coaches tend to be stubborn. It’s not just enough to win; they want to win their way. If Sarkisian comes to Atlanta with that mentality, this great Falcons offense that blitzed the league in 2016 may end up another one-year wonder.
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