After losing their first game since Dec. 5 of last year, the Detroit Lions are looking to rebound against the Atlanta Falcons, a team that went 13-3 just a year ago. The last time these two teams faced off, rookie quarterback Matt Ryan threw a touchdown on his first pass in the NFL on the first play of the season back in 2008. We all know how that season ended. In today's post, I will introduce you guys to an offense that is quite well put together around established guys like Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Roddy White. Aside from those guys, they also added a much-needed playmaker through the draft in Julio Jones.
The offense is coached mainly by offensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Mike Mularkey. Mularkey entered the NFL in 1983 as a ninth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers but never played a game for them. As a player, he spent five seasons with the Vikings ('83-'87) and another four with the Steelers ('88-'91) in a pretty lackluster career. His real success would come in coaching, which he started with the Buccaneers in '94 as first their quality control coach and later as their tight end coach in 1995. That year, Bucs tight end Jackie Harris became only one of three tight ends in Bucs history to lead the team in receiving yards.
Mularkey would go on to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers tight ends from 1996 to 2000, after which he became their offensive coordinator in 2001, a role that most people know him for. In the three seasons under Mularkey, the Steelers' normally quaint offense ranked seventh and eighth in points scored before dipping to 19th in 2003. With them, Mularkey developed his scheme of offense that has become the staple of the Steelers of this decade: an excellent power running game with versatile receivers that can run, catch, block and even pass, while the quarterback is asked to pick apart defenses on play-actions.
After the 2003 season, Mularkey went on to take the head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills and immediately led them to a 9-7 season in ’04, the last time the Bills had a winning season. He would stay with the Bills for one more season and was fired after a 5-11 finish in 2005. After that, he took his talents to South Beach to coach the Miami Dolphins offense under then head coach Nick Saban and later coached their tight ends under Can Cameron before joining the Falcons as their offensive coordinator in 2008.
Identity-wise, most people already know what the Atlanta Falcons are all about. Like Mularkey’s other teams, the Falcons are a power running team with plenty of receiving threats in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez. However, unlike other power running teams, the Falcons have a franchise quarterback that is as capable as any in the league, and the offense has the ability to put up a lot of points in a hurry. Basically, they are a more explosive version of the San Francisco 49ers, which should tell you how tough Sunday’s game is going to be.
Scheme-wise, it is difficult to point to a certain scheme that Mularkey prefers, much like Scott Linehan. While the Lions offensive game plan and the Flacons game plan are polar opposites in terms of run-pass ratio, the two coordinators actually do a lot of things the same way. For starters, both love to use their number one wideouts to open up the rest of the field for their other options. Lions fans know quite well about how Linehan utilizes guys like Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler to take advantage of gaps left in coverage because other teams double cover Calvin Johnson. Much in the same fashion, Mularkey has used guys like Tony Gonzalez among others to take advantage of matchups any time teams decide to double cover Roddy White.
The problem with the Falcons offense the last few years has been that they had been relegated to use Roddy White as their deep threat receiver to create those mismatches, even though White is much more of a possession wideout. To counteract that problem, the Falcons went out and sent five draft choices Cleveland’s way in April to move up 21 spots to grab one of the best receivers in college football last season, Julio Jones. With Jones, they have their perfect combination of a deep threat (Jones) and an elite possession wideout (White). Of course, the Falcons have struggled quite a bit in the early season and Jones has been hurt, but the potential for great things are still there for this offense.
For this week’s play breakdown, we are going to take a look at the Falcons power running game. In the play below, which can be watched here starting at the 1:17 mark, the Falcons come out in an I-formation with the tight end on the left side of the line and the wide receiver lined up in the left slot. They have Roddy White split out wide to the right.
The Panthers sense a run to the strong side (left) and bring the safety down to the first down marker. They did this since Turner had already rushed for a 14-yard gain on the previous play, but curiously they don’t shift their linebackers over. When the play begins, the Falcons down block to the left and double team the right defensive end of the Panthers with the tight end and the left tackle, creating a seam between the left guard and left tackle. After this, the left tackle moves on to the second level and manages to get a block on the linebacker, which is the critical block. Because of that block, the fullback can then shift his attention to blocking the safety coming down on the play and the slot receiver does a great job of blocking the corner also, which results in a 24-yard run by Michael Turner.
All in all, the Falcons offense may not look good on paper, but it can be very dangerous against a Lions team that gave up 141 yards to Frank Gore on just 15 carries. What makes this game really difficult for the Lions is that just shutting down the running game won’t solve the problem; they will have to find a way to stop Michael Turner and then stop Matt Ryan if and when they do stop Turner. Clearly, stopping Matt Ryan is the lesser of the two problems with the Lions pass rush, but Turner is going to be a huge challenge for the Lions on Sunday. I expect a good showing from the Falcons on Sunday, and I think they can score anywhere from 20 to 27 points.