Film Room: Examining the Kyle Shanahan Offense Part 1 — The Passing Game

Jan 22, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (left) after the 2017 NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta won 44-21. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 22, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (left) after the 2017 NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta won 44-21. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports /

This is the first installment of a two part series examining the playbook of Kyle Shanahan. Today we look at the Falcons explosive passing game.

With the looming prospect of Kyle Shanahan becoming the 49ers next head coach, I think it is important to give his playbook an extensive look. Today I will be covering the passing game and, in a future installment, I will look at the running game and how both the passing and running games compliment each other.

The Falcons offense scored a team record 540 points this season (33.8 points per game), placing them tied for seventh with the 2000 St Louis Rams (the greatest show on turf) on the all-time NFL single season points scored list. Through two playoff games against the Seahawks and the Packers, the Falcons have scored 80 points and look to keep that rolling in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.

Under my personal favorite metric, Football Outsiders DVOA, the Falcons offense ranked first overall by a wide margin. DVOA measures efficiency on a per-play basis and the Falcons ranked first in the passing game and seventh in the running game.

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This understandably makes the prospect of hiring Kyle Shanahan even more exciting for fans, who are eager to see the 49ers get back on track and become a contender again.

And as I’ve argued recently here, the offense may improve significantly faster than the defense due to the already apparent improvement under former head coach Chip Kelly.

It’s often hard to determine the overall impact of the offensive coordinator or head coach, but it becomes apparent the more you watch teams like the Packers and Falcons.

All season, the Packers struggled to move the ball due to their receivers struggling to get open. Consequently, Aaron Rodgers had to play at a consistently high level to “run the table” and make it to the NFC Championship game against the Falcons.

The stark contrast between the Packers and Falcons is the signal-caller on the sidelines. It becomes apparent fairly quickly when watching Shanahan’s offense (or any offense) that you can pinpoint certain things he does to put players in positions to succeed. One need only look back and see how Kelly schemed guys wide open who otherwise would not step on the field for any other NFL team.

Shanahan’s play designs scheme receivers open and take pressure off the quarterback by going under center on play action for mid to deep field passing plays. For every coverage, many of Shanahan’s passing concepts stress the defense on one side of the field, making the quarterback’s job just that much easier to execute.

The offense Kyle Shanahan schemes gives the quarterback multiple pre-snap options based on the pre-snap look of the defense. On several occassions, Matt Ryan was given a “packaged play” known as the “run-pass option” (RPO).

In the RPO, the quarterback has the option of handing the ball off to the running back or passing to receiver based on the pre-snap look, or the post-snap movement, of the defense. The goal is to always make the defense wrong.

Against the Raiders in Week 2, Matt Ryan hit tight end Jacob Tamme for a 15-yard gain on this RPO off of the outside zone-run blocking scheme:

The play is essentially a called run. You can see this in the movement of the running back and offensive line as they move to reach and get up field on their outside zone run blocks.

What helps sell the play is the lineman and running back do not ultimately know where that ball is going so they must stick to their assignments.

The play gives the quarterback the option to abort the run in favor of the pass, based on the defensive alignment or post-snap movement. Right away, Ryan notices the strength of the defense is set to the right side of the offense’s formation.

At the snap, the defense flows in the direction of the blocking, leaving a void in the middle of the field vacated by the linebackers. Tamme gets inside his defender and Ryan hits him for an easy 15-yard completion:

At the snap, the defense flows in the direction of the blocking, leaving a void in the middle of the field vacated by the linebackers. Tamme gets inside his defender and Ryan hits him for an easy 15-yard completion:

Another example came in the divisional round playoff game against the Seahawks.

The pre-snap look of the defense right away dictated the direction of the play.

The resulting play ended in a touchdown for Julio Jones:

The key for this play is the slot cornerback to the offense’s left lined up too wide over the two receiver bunch with Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman playing off-coverage over the bunch.

Ryan recognized the secondary alignment (Sherman’s depth) and the flow of the running back and offensive line helped to draw in the linebackers just enough for Ryan to hit Jones over the middle for the touchdown.

This play epitomizes Shanahan’s coaching career. It’s not a particularly difficult read for the quarterback and it doesn’t require a precision pass into a tight window.

Shanahan has regularly been able to have success despite the personnel groupings he’s had in his career, which also feature Robert Griffin III and Brian Hoyer.

Kyle Shanahan is best known for what he did propel RGIII to Rookie of the Year in 2012.

Another way Kyle Shanahan found success is in knowing his opponents tendencies. The Falcons faced the Seahawks twice this season so Shanahan is intimately familiar with the 49ers division rival.

In this next play also from the divisional playoff game, Shanahan knows the Seahawks are always primarily in cover 3. It’s not always a traditional cover 3 because, like most defenses, they shift and adjust to the play post-snap.

The Falcons are running the “sail concept” against Seattle’s cover 3 defense. Shanahan lines them up with two receivers spread to the right and a tighter two-receiver bunch to the quarterback’s left with the running back next to Ryan.

The sail concept looks to stretch the defense at all levels of the coverage, knowing the defense doesn’t have that third level:

Kyle Shanahan is stressing the cornerback on that side of the field.

In cover 3, that corner is responsible for the deep third so Shanahan sends two receivers into that area on a deep post and a corner route.

To ensure the linebacker doesn’t drop into coverage with the corner route, he also sends a receiver out into the flat to open that corner void.

The result is a touchdown in the void, due to the corner not being able to pass the deep receiver off to the safety, leaving Tevin Coleman wide open in the end zone:

Earlier in the season against Seattle, Kyle Shanahan called a slightly different variation of the sail concept that switched receiver roles to the same side of the field.

The Seahawks are in their base 4-3 cover 3 defense:

This time, instead of the running back going out on the corner route, the tight end charges straight up the field toward safety Earl Thomas before breaking to the corner. The outside receiver cuts in at a shallow five yards before breaking out to the flat and Julio Jones, the middle receiver to that side, runs the slot fade.

The coverage principle was the same. Sherman jumped the shallow flat route and Jones’ man widened out to the deep third with Jones’ route.

Ryan and the tight end hold the safety long enough with for Jones to get open, and Ryan drops a perfect on-time accurate pass in the window between the pylon and the safety.

Jones’ momentum carries him to the end zone for the touchdown:

The last way Kyle Shanahan schemes to beat a defense is by leveraging his talent on the roster to create a mismatch on the field. Against the Broncos, Shanahan forced their defensive personnel to remain in base personnel groupings all game, allowing the Falcons offense to take advantage by putting the Broncos’ linebackers in space.

On 1st and 10 in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end), Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco split wide outside the numbers, while running back Tevin Coleman motioned to the slot creating a trips set to the right of the offense.

The Broncos in a cover “two man” defense, dropped a linebacker out to cover Coleman:

At the snap, tight end Austin Hooper released downfield on a seam route with Coleman running a dig across the field underneath Hooper, creating a rub.

This rub put the linebackers in the same space, with Todd Davis (covering Coleman) having to work over the top of linebacker Brandon Marshall (covering Hooper).

Davis couldn’t get to Coleman and this great play design against man coverage allowed Coleman to catch and run for 48 yards:

Later in the game, the Falcons again shifted to an empty set and motioned Coleman again out to the slot inside DiMarco.

The Broncos this time were in a cover one “man free” defense:

The Falcons were again able to dictate the match-up they wanted with Davis again in coverage with Coleman. Coleman ran a slot fade route while the Broncos sent pressure against Ryan.

With the pocket collapsing around Ryan, he threw a perfect pass to Coleman in stride for a 49-yard gain:

Coleman was able to beat Davis by a few yards.

Another matchup dictated by Shanahan’s offense that bent the defense to their will.

Next: John Lynch Dilemma on Colin Kaepernick

In part two of this series, we’ll look at the running game Kyle Shanahan employs and how it’s used to complement the passing game.