Backfield Breakdown- Atlanta Falcons

Jody Smith breaks down the Falcons offensive line, new zone blocking scheme, and the potential fantasy impact for the team's new look backfield.

| 1 year ago
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Backfield Breakdown- Atlanta Falcons


Devonta FreemanAfter a couple of impressive offensive outbursts to begin the 2014 season, the Atlanta Falcons offense and defense ultimately unraveled as the club missed the NFC playoffs for a second straight season. Even though the Falcons still had a shot to win the NFC South in Week 17, a 34-3 defeat at the hands of Carolina would prove to be the end of the line for head coach Mike Smith.
Tasked with turning around the Falcons’ recent woes will be a new regime led by first-time head coach Dan Quinn and veteran offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Among the biggest priorities for the new staff will be to rebuild the team’s 32nd ranked defense, revive a sagging offensive line and to restore a rushing attack that has been in a four-year slump.

The Falcons haven’t finished as even an average running team since 2010, when RB Michael Turner churned out 1371 yards and the rushing attack ranked 12th in the NFL. Beginning in 2011, Atlanta would finish the next four seasons ranked 17th, 29th, 32nd and 24th in the league.

Turner’s sudden decline, the ineffectiveness of his replacement, Steven Jackson, and the inability to draft an adequate successor are partly to blame for Atlanta’s lack of rushing success. But perhaps the biggest factor has been the club’s offensive line, which has been hit hard by injuries, draft misses and poor play.

Offensive Line

In 2014, offensive line coach Mike Tice was forced to use five different starting lineups along the O-line due to numerous injuries. Although the line was adequate in pass protection, PFF graded the Falcons as the league’s 28th-ranked run blocking unit.

Pos. Player Age Starts Run Block Pass Block Overall
LT Jake Matthews 22 15 -19.1 -19.5 -36.8
LG Justin Blalock 31 15 2.1 -0.2 3.8
C James Stone 22 9 -6.8 -6.2 -13.5
RG Jon Asamoah 26 15 4.3 0.8 4.4
RT Ryan Schraeder 26 10 8.2 -2.7 7.1
RT Gabe Carimi 26 7 -10.4 2.5 -10.7
Former first-round pick OT Sam Baker missed the entire 2014 season after playing just four games in 2013. Baker’s absence forced the club to move 2014 No. 6 overall pick Jake Matthews to left tackle and the rookie struggled mightily, finishing dead last as PFF’s 84th-ranked offensive tackle. 
As poorly as Matthews performed, he did play through a high-ankle sprain injury and required offseason Lisfranc surgery. Matthews also refused to use those injuries as an excuse. The good news is that Matthews gained a lot of experience and his athleticism appears to be an excellent fit for Atlanta’s new zone-blocking scheme.
Left guard Justin Blalock finished 2014 as PFF’s 26th-ranked guard, but was released in the offseason. He’ll be replaced by 10-year veteran lineman Chris Chester who graded out 33rd at the position. Chester struggled to run block in Washington’s power scheme, but has experience in a ZBS, having played three season under Kyle Shanahan in Washington.
Undrafted free agent C James Stone was forced into the starting lineup after starting C Joe Hawley tore his right ACL in Week 4. As expected, Stone struggled and finished the season ranked 34th out of 41 centers. Hawley should be fully recovered from his knee injury in time for Week 1 and is expected to start and be a significant upgrade in both the pass and run game. In 2013, Hawley finished as the 17th ranked run blocking center.
After signing a five-year $22.5 million contract in free agency, right guard Jon Asamoah made 15 starts for the Falcons and ended up as PFF’s 24th rated guard. Asamoah had positive scores in both pass and run blocking and will be counted on to add so much needed continuity up front.
Former undrafted right tackle Ryan Schraeder took a huge leap forward in 2014 and ended up as the highest rated members of the Falcons front five. Schrader has been called Atlanta’s secret superstar and possesses the type of footwork and movement that suggest he will improve as a run blocker and be a natural fit in a zone scheme.
Free agent acquisition Tyler Polumbus was signed as depth, but could earn a larger role at right tackle with a strong showing in training camp. Polumbus, 30, enters his eighth pro season with experience in Washington’s zone scheme, having played there under Kyle Shanahan from 2011-2013.

The Zone Blocking Scheme

Coming from the same coaching tree as Joe Gibbs and his father, Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan favors a version of the wide zone offense, predicated on quick, athletic offensive lineman and a decisive, one-cut running back who can routinely make the correct decision and simply take what the defense gives.

As an offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offenses have enjoyed a varied level of success in previous coordinating stints with Houston (2008-09), Washington (2010-2013) and Cleveland (2014).

Year Team Pass Yards Rank Rush Yards Rank Overall Rank
2008 Houston 4267 4 1846 13 3
2009 Houston 4654 1 1475 30 4
2010 Washington 3931 8 1461 30 18
2011 Washington 3773 14 1614 25 16
2012 Washington 3422 20 2709 1 5
2013 Washington 3751 16 2164 5 9
2014 Cleveland 3465 20 1728 17 23

 

Shanahan has never had the opportunity to coach an elite quarterback, but has still managed to coax strong fantasy performances out of Matt Schaub (4th-ranked fantasy QB) in 2008, and Robert Griffin III (5th-ranked fantasy QB) in 2012.

The key to success for a Shanahan-led offense is balance-something that hasn’t always happened in seven seasons as a play-caller. In four of the five years that his offenses finished in the top half of the league in rushing, Shanahan also guided his offenses to above average passing numbers. Only in 2012, when rookie Robert Griffin himself rushed for 815 yards, did we not see this balance occur.

Three times during that span, Shanahan’s offenses finished above average in rushing yards, and each of those squads featured a lead running back who excelled in the zone system. In 2008, rookie third-round pick Steve Slaton came out of nowhere to make 15 starts for Houston, rush for 1282 yards, catch 50 passes and score 10 touchdowns. That season, Slaton ranked as PFF”s No. 10 running back.

In 2012, another unheralded rookie, Alfred Morris, won the starting job in Washington and parlayed that role to the tune of 1613 rushing yards, 13 scores and a No. 4 finish according to PFF’s metrics as the Redskins led the NFL in rushing. In 2013, Morris dropped off a bit, but still rushed for 1275 yards and Washington finished as the league’s fifth-best rushing attack.

Without a clear cut lead back, Shanahan’s other offenses have failed to achieve the same amount of success, finishing in the bottom half of the NFL’s rushing totals in each of those four years. Whether it was injuries, turnovers, or just ineffective play, committee backfields just haven’t been as effective. In 2009-11 and 2014, no running back topped 742 rushing yards, and none of these clubs made the NFL playoffs.

For the Falcons to enjoy a quick turn around and become contenders in a winnable NFC South, it seems that they’ll need their offensive line to jell, and one of their young running backs to step up and take control of the starting job.

Backfield Breakdown

Vying for that starting gig will be second-year man Devonta Freeman and rookie third-round selection Tevin Coleman. Big-play threat Antone Smith is also in the mix, but is expected to maintain his role as a change-of-pace back off of the bench.

Freeman and Coleman are both undersized by normal running back standards, but that shouldn’t be much of a concern. Steve Slaton was also considered on the small size, but had an impressive first year in this system. Based off of pure measurables, Tevin Coleman appears to have the advantage over the veteran Freeman.

Player Height Weight 40-yd dash 10-yd split
Devonta Freeman 5′ 8″ 206 4.58 s 1.59 s
Tevin Coleman 5′ 11″ 206 4.39 s 1.52 s

According to College Football Focus, Coleman also faired very well in elusive rating (7th in the nation) and breakaway percentage (1st) while at Indiana. In his final year with the Hoosiers, Coleman set a school record with 2036 rushing yards. While projecting to be adequate as a pass blocker and receiver, the biggest part of Coleman’s game is top-end breakaway speed. Once he’s in the open field, Coleman has drawn favorable comparisons to Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson for their ability to turn the corner and outrun the secondary.

Coleman has also been scouted as a “stiff” runner who might lack the quick decision making that is necessary to excel as a one-cut runner. In college, he relied on his superb speed, but in the pros that speed will be mitigated and Coleman will have to learn to improve his instincts and take what the O-line gives him.

With a year’s experience, Devonta Freeman opened training camp as the first-team running back and will be given every opportunity to remain the starter. Despite playing only 237 snaps as a rookie, Freeman was PFF’s 14th-rated receiving back. Head coach Dan Quinn has hinted that the team plans to utilize Freeman in a lot of different ways, perhaps even as a slot receiver at times. 

Along with experience, Freeman brings a professional attitude and is highly competitive. His vision and balance seem to be good fits for a ZBS, but there are major concerns about Freeman’s frame and ability to hold up to a heavier workload.

Fantasy Forecast 

The Falcons, especially the passing game, have been a fantasy bright spot for several years. With QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones and WR Roddy White returning, expectations are that the Atlanta passing attack will once again put up a lot of points.

One of the most engaging situations fantasy owners will be monitoring this preseason will be how the young Falcons backfield plays out. With the success of the zone blocking scheme in terms of producing positive fantasy production, there’s every reason to think that Atlanta’s backfield has the potential to improve and put up excellent fantasy numbers.

The way things are shaping up early, the Atlanta backfield has all the signs of the dreaded running back-by-committee. Although that situation might suit the new Falcons regime well- utilizing both young running backs strengths and alternating series- until one guy emerges, it could be a frustrating guessing game for fantasy football.

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