The Atlanta Falcons know what they want to be on offense. The vision is clear, and the Falcons have dug in for better or worse.
With the selection of Bijan Robinson eighth overall, following the previous first-round picks of Drake London and Kyle Pitts, the Falcons are building up skill position talent that should be difficult to defend all over the field.
To their credit, the approach to offense has come close to working already.
Atlanta finished the 2022 season 12th in EPA per play on offense.
That could have been even better if not for some highly volatile performances at quarterback, which led to the Falcons ranking 17th in EPA per dropback. A league-leading 17.8% of Atlanta pass attempts were deemed inaccurate, according to TruMedia. A number of potential big plays were left on the field.
That was spread throughout the receiving corps.
Among 157 wide receivers and tight ends with at least 200 routes run last season, Pitts was second in inaccurate target rate (28.8%), Olamide Zaccheaus was eighth (23%), and London was 18th (18.8%).
The route concepts and ability to separate were there. The execution was a bit off at times.
Things didn’t get much better with the quarterback switch.
Marcus Mariota had a 17.7% inaccurate rate while Desmond Ridder was at 18.3% in his limited sample of games. The league average was 10.9%.
The biggest difference was where those inaccuracies happened.
Mariota was often throwing deep down the field, which at least brought some explosive plays when they did hit.
Ridder’s issues came closer to the line of scrimmage, which also limited the upside since his average pass traveled over two yards shorter than Mariota’s.
So while Robinson can add to a run game that was already one of the league’s best — third in EPA per play — his impact could be felt in the ways the Falcons open things up across the offense.
Teams talk about the ability to play positionless football and be versatile — two things Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot brought up when discussing the Robinson pick — but few can actually put it into practice. The Falcons might be among the few who can.
Atlanta used the second-lowest rate of 11 personnel last season at just 33.4%. Instead of having three wide receivers on the field, the Falcons opted for heavier looks in 12 (23.4%, sixth-most) and 21 (20.2%, fifth-most), per TruMedia.
With players like Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson in those packages, the look of the personnel groupings could be wildly different from snap to snap.
Tight end MyCole Pruitt was key to this last season while he motioned in and out of the backfield. This season, that role will mostly be filled by Jonnu Smith, who was a versatile move tight end under Arthur Smith with the Tennessee Titans.
12 personnel can look like 21 or 11 on a given play.
Expanding even further with this philosophy appears to be the hope with the addition of Robinson. After the Falcons drafted Robinson, Arthur Smith noted his ability to play from the slot was a big selling point.
“His background playing in the slot was a big piece of it,” Smith told reporters in the post-first-round press conference. “Bijan can carry the football, that’s obvious, but there are other ways you can find to get guys touches.”
After rookie camp practices, Robinson echoed that sentiment with how he expected to be used.
“He uses me everywhere, from receiver to running back,” Robinson said, via ESPN. “He lets me do my abilities and skill set the right way, whether it’s catching the ball, running routes, obviously running the football, blocking, and doing it all.”
We even got some glimpses of slot routes during those practices.
#7 is working! pic.twitter.com/VggNqYPv1w
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) May 12, 2023
Now, the value of running back snaps from the slot can be debated. If looking at all running back routes from the slot, the efficiency doesn’t look worth it. When running backs lined up in the slot last season, the league average was just over one yard per route run.
But that heavily weighs how often teams use empty formations where those running backs aren’t featured as the main option on the play. Running backs going out in empty is just a function of the offensive formation.
Last year, empty formations made up 73.8% of routes, 68% of targets, 66.9% of receptions, and 65.5% of yards for running backs in the slot. From empty, running backs in the slot averaged just 0.95 yards per route run.
When running backs are in the slot in non-empty sets, they’re typically more featured because they’re in that spot for a reason.
In those situations, running backs average a target on 25.5% of routes, compared to 19.3% in empty, with 1.41 yards per route run.
Backs like Christian McCaffrey (4.39 yards per route run) and Aaron Jones (2.32) had an impact from the slot within the structure of the offense with another player in the backfield.
Robinson only had two catches from the slot during the 2022 season, per Sports Info Solutions, and both were out of empty. However, those two plays were for 22 and 26 air yards, including a fantastic contested catch against Iowa State.
A lack of slot production was more about the Texas offense than Robinson’s ability. He’s still spent between 5-8% of his snaps split out during his college career, per SIS. Even when not in the slot, Robinson was one of the few running backs who saw consistent receiving production on targets beyond the line of scrimmage.
This would add a completely new element to the Atlanta passing game.
Even with Patterson considered a running back, the Falcons were just 19th in aDOT (0.33) to backs last season. 63.5% of Atlanta’s running back targets were at or behind the line of scrimmage, the fourth-highest rate in the league.
There is a significant difference between the value of running back targets behind the line of scrimmage and those beyond it. Last season, running back targets averaged -0.14 EPA per play at or behind the line of scrimmage while targets beyond it averaged 0.07.
Part of that disconnect stems from how those targets come to be. Those throws behind the line can often be checkdowns late in the play. The value is saving a play from a sack or worse.
But those throws beyond the line of scrimmage are more often earlier in the progression. And those specific targets carry a much higher value.
Having a player like Robinson also has the potential to increase the value of those dump-offs and checkdowns, especially in the way the Falcons structure their offense.
Atlanta’s approach to offense last season often caused defenses to play the Falcons in single-high coverage. Atlanta saw the 10th-highest rate of single-high last season, and that is where Ridder was at his best.
Ridder saw a steep decline in performance with defenses using two-high coverages.
Desmond Ridder vs Coverage Structure, 2022
data per TruMedia
|Coverage||EPA/Play||aDOT||RB Target%||WR Target%||TE Target%|
The personnel packages with Robinson in the backfield should continue to make defenses keep that second safety in to attempt to keep the running game in control. That can open up the deeper shots down the field Ridder was willing to take against those coverages.
That’s where this all comes together.
Robinson, individually, should be a talent the Falcons are excited about. What Smith and the offense can do to use his presence to change the looks and open things up for everything else can be the key to how good this offense can be for 2023 and beyond.