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Interesting Breakdown Of Our Offense By A Viking Outlet


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Holy ****, that was a great read. Why does this Vikings writer know and write about our offense in a way i have not seen a Falcons writer do... well, ever? That made me appreciate Dirk a lot more than i did beforehand. We need to pay this man to come write for us, or we need to at least play the vikings more so he'll do this more often. Great article.

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A good point from the article that, I think, emphasizes the importance of Matt spending as much time with the WRs as he seems to:

It can create a complicated looking playbook with plays that seem unreasonable, but the only person it is difficult for is the quarterback, where all the skill players have simple responses to the defenders they’re playing against.

He wants to make sure he sees things the way they see them. Obviously any quarterback does, but it seems like that may be more important with what we are running now.

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Defending the Falcons Passing Attack: A Foray in Four Verticals

Sep 26 2014 05:30 AM | Arif Hasan in Minnesota Vikings

It may seem a hopeless effort for the Minnesota Vikings, fresh off a bodybag loss to the New Orleans Saints, to put in a winning effort against a team that just recorded the sixth-most dominant win in NFL history.


Image courtesy of Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY SportsBut the game is never over before it starts, and the Vikings have an opportunity to get their season back on track with a statement win at home—and that starts with stopping the Falcons offense.

The problem of course, is how to do it.

The Atlanta Falcons, by some measures, should be a surprise team to do well this year. They’re 2-1, but it certainly feels like they’re confident playoff contenders despite a clunker in Cincinnati. Fresh off a record that saw them picking before the Vikings (4-12), the Falcons have clearly asserted themselves as an NFC threat.

On the other hand, the Falcons in the Matt Ryan era before last season were 56-22, hitting 10-win seasons four of five times, making the playoffs exactly that often. It was clearly a talented team before the nosedive last year, in part due to injuries to starters, like Julio Jones, Sam Baker, Kroy Biermann, Sean Weatherspoon and Steve Jackson. They lost the sixth-most player-games due to injury, according to Football Outsiders, including what is perhaps their best player.

Since then, the Falcons have most of their starters healthy (Weatherspoon and Baker are indeed injured again, however) and the injuries that they’ve suffered so far are to less critical players. With that, the underperforming players from last year have mostly been replaced with unusual efficiency. An offensive line that gave up 32 sacks and a league-leading 264 pressures (and those are just the pressures and sacks credited specifically to the offensive line, much less the tight ends and running backs) has been retooled so that three of the starters at the beginning of 2013 (Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Peter Konz, Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes) are no longer the starters to begin this season (Jake Matthews, Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, Jon Asamoah and Lamar Holmes).

While in 2013, they ranked 30th in pass blocking efficiency per Pro Football Focus, they rank 15th this year.

There are other measures that have improved the team as well (hiring Mike Tice as their offensive line coach, having their three 2013 rookie cornerbacks develop and so forth) but the point remains: they look much more like their 2012 self than 2013 self—even from a generic identity perspective.

Looking at their prorated ProFootballFocus grades from 2014 and comparing them to the previous two years, the 2014 team is very close to the 2012 team in overall pass, running, pass coverage and special teams scores, and is closer to the 2014 team than 2013 in penalty and pass blocking scores. The 2013 team is only closer in run blocking and run defense scores, the last of which may not be relevant for Vikings fans this year.

What’s nice for Vikings fans is that though the team is now operating at a high-caliber, they are at least not nearly as multiple on offense or defense than their last two opponents—which is not a synonym for easier, but at least it is simpler.

The Falcons, on offense, like to spread the ball out among receivers. Against Tampa Bay, Matt Ryan targeted nine different players. In week two, it was eight players and in week one, nine again. Overall, twelve different players have been targeted by Ryan, with Bear Pascoe being the only skill player to take snaps and not receive a target on the field.

They accomplish this largely through pass-friendly formations that put players out onto the field. Their running backs run more routes (74.3% of passing downs, compared to 70.8% of the Vikings), and they run more three and four-receiver sets. 139 of their 197 plays thus far have had three or more receivers on the field, while only 82 of the Vikings’ 172 plays have done the same (70.5% to 47.6%).

Despite what many are calling a “spread look” from the Erhardt-Perkins offense that Dirk Koetter runs, it’s often pro-style in that it does not attempt to simplify the read-system or present ways to change the two-man advantage the defense has in the running game, and it relies on the offensive linemen to sustain blocks longer.

In the sense that it does “spread” the defense out both horizontally and vertically, it certainly does that, but not in the sense of the Kevin Sumlin/Dana Holgorsen way—only 14% of Matt Ryan’s passes last year were behind the line of scrimmage, whereas Nick Foles saw nearly one-fifth of his passes do the same.

In college, the difference is even starker; Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel both ran spread systems, with Carr throwing over a third of his passes behind the line of scrimmage and Manziel throwing 22% of his passes that way. Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill were similar: 21 and 22 percent. Geno Smith under Holgorsen threw it behind the LOS 30% of the time.

Spreading the field horizontally for the Falcons doesn’t mean stretching the entire defense, but testing the range of the players who need it most: the safeties. Dirk Koetter calls his system the “four verticals” system, which harkens to spread systems closer to Mike Leach’s old BYU teams. This isn’t to say that they run four vertical routes on every or even most plays, but use the concept often and tailor many of their passing plays from this basic route tree.

“Four verticals” is simply the base concept that many other passing plays hinge off of, not a commitment to the deep ball—in 2013, Matt Ryan threw the fewest percentage of his passes over twenty yards of all NFL quarterbacks, and ranked 22nd of 33 in 2012. The idea behind the system is not to consistently create deep shots, but to leverage against the free safety—make sure that he’s always wrong.

It should be noted, though it shouldn't change the nature of the defensive response to the offense, that Matt Ryan so far this year ranks sixth in deep attempt percentage this year and seventh in average depth of target. With a small sample size from this season, it may just be a result of the nature of the matchups (Julio Jones against Patrick Robinson is a dream).

While quarterbacks will often make reads based on the safety coverage, the emphasis of the system is to make nearly everything about the safety, not just which half of the field to read. Sight adjustments are an important part of the offense (more on them later), but the significant thing is to make the passing offense revolve around the free safety.

In this case, the slot receiver ends up being one of the most important players on the offense, even if he himself doesn’t receive the ball too many times. The Atlanta Falcons have a higher percentage of their receivers run slot routes than anyone in the league, in part to replace the vital role Tony Gonzalez played, but also to set up the offense to move the safety.


The above play demonstrates the importance of the inside receiver, where they adjust their routes to the safety and enable the quarterback progression. Matt Ryan’s progression rules likely don’t go to the slot receiver first, but he holds the safeties and stretches them away from his primary targets on the outside, Julio Jones and Roddy White.

When in route, the tight ends often do the same thing.

This is a different offense than the one Koetter ran in Jacksonville for a number of reasons, not just personnel. While Koetter is a big advocate of option routes, and has been throughout his career, the options the players run in this game are designed specifically to read off of individual players and not defenses—a different approach than the Patriots, whose players read the defense and adjust as a result.

It can create a complicated looking playbook with plays that seem unreasonable, but the only person it is difficult for is the quarterback, where all the skill players have simple responses to the defenders they’re playing against.

In some senses, there’s really no problem calling the Falcons a “spread” offense, so long as it’s understood that the Urban Meyer spread or the Dana Holgorsen spread systems are at complete odds with what Koetter is trying to do, which better encapsulates the Mike Leach spread.

But with all of that, Koetter runs traditional concepts as well. The route combinations with backside tags are remarkably simple, and two high school playbooks could probably contain everything they do. Common route combinations:




There are some routes that look like a mess, but are simpler than they look in execution. A general rule for the outside receivers looks to be cribbed from Air Raid offenses—they run a “9” route (go/fade/fly/streak etc) at full speed, but decide ten yards in whether or not they will beat the corner over the top. If they do, they continue running the route as-is. If not, they’ll convert to a curl route. This is less a judgment of talent and more of positioning and coverage—if the corner is going to stay on top, then it’s easier to take the curl route and the cheaper yards at 12-14 yards.

That’s why it seems like the Falcons are constantly calling curl routes. They aren’t calling that many (except in spacing or snag concepts), but the receivers are checking to them because of their coverage.

Often defenses will defend that coverage by checking into “quarters” coverage, where the outside corners and the two safeties each take a quarter of the deep field. This stretches out the linebackers in the hook/curl areas, and the Falcons readily acknowledge that they’ll see quarters. From Koetter:


: Is getting the ball to your outside receivers an automatic adjustment for you in quarters, or will you still try to attack the middle of the field vs.quarters safeties?

: If they are a good quarters team, whether they are a 4-3 or in nickel coverage, they will try to re-route your inside receivers with their outside linebackers. They have safeties essentially playing man over the top. I’m not a big believer that you can hit your benders against quarters coverage. Anything can be done, and I’ve seen it done. But I think that’s a low percentage play. I think the percentage play against quarters in four verticals is you’re working your outside guys on some kind of stops or lock stops. If you’re seeing quarters with off coverage, any kind of out-breaking route or a comeback or stop route at 15 yards is like a pitch and catch. The other thing is if the outside backers are trying to re-route number two and run underneath number one, that Mike linebacker has a ton of room he has to cover with the back.

And Koetter likes to attack the middle linebacker in those situations.

It’s not an insoluble problem; solid coverage, like in most situations, will deal with the option routes correctly. The biggest worry will be when those curls start turning into stop-and-go routes—getting a consistent pattern of curls on film is the first step to getting open deep on double-moves midway through the season.

The matchups are not particularly salivating for the Vikings. Outside of the NFC North, the Falcons might boast the best receiver pair in the NFL. With Roddy White likely to play, the Vikings are in for an arduous day against Atlanta.

For the most part, Xavier Rhodes and surprisingly Josh Robinson are well-built to deal with the strength of the Falcons offense. That isn’t to say that they are spectacular matchups so much as their strengths tend to match the strengths of their opponents.

Julio Jones is a prototypical receiver, and he’s turned into everything the Falcons traded up for. Fast, tall, heavy and strong, Jones is difficult to deal with. Though he dealt with drop issues in 2013, his previous years in the NFL and college don’t reveal the same problem, and he hasn’t dropped a pass this year, either (and of all receivers with no drops, leads them in total catches)—it is more likely injury dragged him down than anything else.

Unlike other receivers his size (like the Marshall-Jeffery pair), he’s fluid and flexible throughout his core, with ankle flexion and hip fluidity as well as excellent body control. He cuts well throughout the route and has adapted to the offense well, reading the defense well enough to make adjustments friendly to Matt Ryan. Though his positioning is good, he doesn’t fare as well as other large receivers in compact spaces—an issue that will likely resolve itself.

For more on Julio Jones, be sure to check out AJ’s article on the matchup.

The other receiver, Roddy White, is beginning to show his age and may be slowed down by wear as well as a recent injury, but he is still a threat to put up 150 yards on an unsuspecting defense if need be. It would be inaccurate to characterize White as the polar opposite of Jones, as Jones has improved much as a route runner, but it’s still a contrast in styles.

White is a crisp-route runner whose skills have gone underrated in this capacity over the years, with route-running abilities comparable to Larry Fitzgerald. He’s explosive out of breaks despite his age and he can fake out defensive backs as well as anyone. There’s a lot of agility there and he can get open on any kind of route. Though the Falcons do not use him that way, they could flex him into the slot, even later in his career, in order to exploit his abilities in space while running routes despite declining speed.

The Vikings’ corners are both physical and athletically capable, but will have to play with more awareness than typically required for an offense, and getting a good read on how the receivers adjust their routes on the fly. Given that the receivers themselves often do not know which routes they will run until the break point, it will require a quick reaction time of both receivers. Though Josh Robinson is playing better than he ever has, it may be asking a lot of him.

Still, Matt Ryan’s five-step drops are a staple of the offense and disrupting the timing will force Ryan to move inside on his routes, which is typically a good thing for the defense in this situation. This might demand a system that encourages press techniques at the line of scrimmage, and scrapping the more complex matchup zones I recommended last weekend for the simpler concepts that mirror man coverage overall.

Whether that's pure man coverage in Cover-1 or Man-Free situations, or Cover-3 and Cover-4 systems whose outside players act much like man coverage players remains to be seen, but a mix of those coverages creates the best opportunities for the Vikings to stay in position and force shorter passes, even if the demand on the cornerbacks to play with high reactivity and agility may seem excessive.

With Greenway out and Hodges in, the linebackers will have to flex their muscles in coverage, as they’ll be tested by Levine Toilolo and the slot receivers, along with running backs Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman.

Though Jackson hasn’t traditionally been considered a receiving threat (three receptions a game for his career, 2.3 with the Falcons), he’s still worth keeping track of. He has decent hands and will be a decent outlet options when the Vikings rotate coverage to handle the deep threats.

Jacquizz Rodgers often is cast as a scatback, and that’s reasonable because of his size and speed, but plays with a lot of power and good pad level. In the passing game, he should be more of a threat than anyone else right now, unless Devonta Freeman sees more time on the field. His speed should be countered well by the pair of Barr and Hodges. Hopefully Jasper Brinkley won’t be picked on too much, and I suspect he will be protected.

Potentially more worrisome is the speedy Antone Smith, who burst onto the scene against Tampa Bay with 12.5 yards a carry and 50 yards overall—he did a good job displaying his speed. It is more likely, however, that the 29-year-old running back will simply revert to his old role as a backup.

Devonta Freeman is probably the running back of the future (FBotF?) for the Falcons, but he won't see the field very much in the short term until her reverts back to his pass blocking ability in college, as his NFL showing so far is not great. It shouldn't take long, but there's not much reason to anticipate him seeing the field more than he has (17 percent of snaps, but gradually more every game). When he sees the field, he will be difficult to take down.

Matt Waldman may have said it best:


Ahmad Bradshaw is one of my favorite running backs of the past 10 years. It has nothing to do with his physical talent — there are dozens of runners with significantly better physiques and athleticism to carry a football. Bradshaw is a good physical talent with near-excellent integration of what he sees and what he can execute.

. . .

Because of his feel for the game, I also believe a healthier Bradshaw would have earned more acclaim despite his smaller than average build for a lead back.

It’s why it got my attention when I heard somewhere that the Falcons thought Devonta Freeman’s player comp was Bradshaw. It turned out that comp might have been one from my colleague Josh Norris at Rotoworld, but it’s still one worth exploring. My comp for Freeman was a mix of Andre Ellington and Tyrell Sutton.

When I think about Ellington and Sutton’s agility, their receiving skills, Ellington’s quickness, and Sutton’s rugged intensity for his size, I think that’s a more detailed description of a player like Bradshaw. Today’s post won’t be a treatise on all the ways that Freeman shares a similar style to Bradshaw, but there are two plays from the Florida State-Clemson contest in 2013 that reminds me of the veteran change of pace back ending his career with the Colts.

. . .

This is a phrase I often used to describe Bradshaw’s running style. I define Slippery Power as a combination of quickness, agility, knowledge of angles, and intensity that breaks tackles or extends plays after contact.

. . .

If Freeman can demonstrate the same skill to avoid direct hits on routinely in the NFL, he could have a productive 3-5 years as the figurehead of Altanta’s ground game after Steven Jackson’s days come to an end.

It really is an excellent read, and I encourage you to take in all of it.

The tight ends are a significant downgrade, naturally, after the retirement of one of the greatest of all time, but even when wiping that slate clean is not a threatening group. If Levine Toilolo improves his pass-catching technique and flashes more reliable hands, he will be a significant problem in years to come. For now, they will move the safeties and linebackers around to enable the other players.

As far as attacking the offense through pressure and hits, the Falcons offensive line has been revamped. Not only has the blocking talent directly improved through the replacement of three players, the communication has dramatically improved with Joe Hawley in over Peter Konz. In addition, offensive line coach Mike Tice has crafted a unit that has immediately shown a big return on investment.

Blitz design will be an important part of winning the game, moreso than other high-level quarterbacks who can exploit any type of blitz for big gains. Matt Ryan is certainly not incapable against the blitz, but compared to quarterbacks of his quality does not possess the same ability to exploit holes in coverage.

In fact, he probably drops off more than most quarterbacks against his baseline (clean pocket, no blitz) ability when the blitz comes, regardless of pressure.

In particular, Ryan is more susceptible to blindside pressure than most other quarterbacks and certainly more than other Pro Bowl-quality quarterbacks. That doesn't always mean the left tackle/right defensive end (though Ryan is not high-level in that context) but pressure away from the half-field read of the quarterback, which may often come from the closed or strong side of the formation.

If the Vikings can determine what the rules are for Matt Ryan's half-field read progression are, they can exploit and design blitzes to put pressure from the side of the field where he won't be reading.

Though the Falcons sight adjustments don't tend to create easy hot routes or quick hits to deal with blitzes, Matt Ryan regresses less than nearly any other quarterback in the NFL (if not every quarterback) when he can see the pressure, which is why he is so much better than Brady or Brees when it comes to interior pressure.

If the Vikings want to win the game with their defensive front, it will have to be with cleverly designed pressures and winning the game on the edge.

In that context, Jake Matthews and Everson Griffen will be an interesting matchup, as Matthews has been performing well for a rookie—better than many expected at this point in his career—while Griffen has been a disappointment given the nature of his contract. There is a good chance Griffen will still be able to leverage pressure, but the individual matchup that helps the Vikings the most will be Brian Robison against Lamar Holmes.

Brian Robison leads the NFL (in the past year, two years and three years) in total pressures on the quarterback, though of course never led the league in sacks in any of those amounts of time. Lamar Holmes has been on the opposite spectrum, ranking at the bottom of the league, or near the bottom in every one of the past two or three years in pressures given up per pass blocking snap.

On the inside, the communication and smarts of Joe Hawley will be an issue when it comes to some of the more exotic blitzes, and the addition of Jon Asamoah at right guard will be an issue for the defensive tackles in terms of creating interior pressure. Justin Blalock was perhaps the best player on the line for them last year and should maintain consistency once more this year.

Here, it may be useful for Zimmer to flip the script and ask his defensive tackles to defend the run first and attack the passer second while asking his defensive ends to do the opposite. Normally Zimmer prefers defensive ends to contain and free up his three-technique to attack. Ryan's ability against interior pressure as well as the improvement in the offensive line may make that investment a better choice.

Regardless, it seems like Matt Ryan's offense is chugging along like it was in 2012 (second overall in points per drive and fifth in drive success rate—a surprisingly well-acknowledged but still underrated offense) and that spells significant problems for a defense that may be performing much better than it has in years, but will need to display the discipline and maturity of a much more experienced defense in order to let the new-look offense grab enough points to put the game away.

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WOW!! what a great read!!! So much for all of us thinking DK could only draw up curl/come back routes, so it's the receivers making those reads and adjustments in route.....

What an awesome write up

It's very interesting and a cool concept and not something I really paid attention to... but it makes me think that in games like the Cincinnati game that the defenders and even the DC are showing things to make the receivers do what they want them to and causing a lot of breakdowns.

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Dang... is that guy a sportswriter or an OC? Can we get him to come south and send Leadbelly to the land of ice and snow?

Seems to be a fan writer, of all things. Writes for that site and their SBnation page. Reading his other stuff, seems like he has a background in statistics.

Edited by NOVAFalconFan
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There's a couple things I take exception to, this being one;

"“Four verticals” is simply the base concept that many other passing plays hinge off of, not a commitment to the deep ball—in 2013, Matt Ryan threw the fewest percentage of his passes over twenty yards of all NFL quarterbacks, and ranked 22nd of 33 in 2012.

It should be noted, though it shouldn't change the nature of the defensive response to the offense, that Matt Ryan so far this year ranks sixth in deep attempt percentage this year and seventh in average depth of target. With a small sample size from this season, it may just be a result of the nature of the matchups (Julio Jones against Patrick Robinson is a dream)."

While it's true Robinson is no Richard Sherman, Koetter is committed to throwing deeper than we have in the past. The difference in numbers this year vs last, is simply a matter of protection.

More time = more balls thrown deep, it's not that difficult.

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