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How the Falcons can find success in the red zone

Atlanta struggles to score and fails to exorcise the demons of last season

Down six to the Eagles, with five seconds left in the game, the Atlanta Falcons needed just 5 yards to tie the score and set up a game-winning extra point. A few months removed from having their season end because of their failure to convert in an almost identical scenario against the same team, this was a perfect opportunity for the Falcons’ offense, an offense that led the team to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, to exorcise the demons of 2017.

So, on opening night, with the eyes of the football world focused on the last play, Atlanta came out in an empty formation with its two top receivers, Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, stacked on the left. Jones, who had been doubled on each of the two previous plays, was doubled again. But Ryan threw it to him anyway. Jones caught the ball out of bounds.

Game over.

The last 20 yards are always the toughest for an offense because the dimensions of the field change dramatically. The short yardage takes away the biggest threat an offense has: the deep pass. Bombs are the most anxiety-inducing plays for a defense. Smart offenses know this and use the threat of an explosive play as the foundation for the rest of their receivers’ routes. Cover guys are taught to take away the deep pass first and react to everything else — unless personnel, alignment, or down and distance indicate otherwise.

Not only does the shortened field limit the offense, it also allows the defense to be more aggressive and deceptive. Outside of the red zone, a defensive coordinator might think twice about blitzing because a missed tackle could turn a 3-yard gain into a 30-yard gain. But in the red zone, particularly the low red zone (inside the 10-yard line), a missed tackle is a touchdown no matter how many players are available to rally to the ball carrier. So there goes that blitz deterrent.

Outside of the red zone, the most important defenders for quarterbacks to read pre-snap are the safeties. When there is the potential for a deep ball, the safeties must get to their proper alignment before the ball is snapped or risk giving up a deep pass. And when there is a blitz, the safeties are normally the players who must get in position to replace the blitzer in coverage, which can tip where the blitz is coming from. But in the red zone, with no need to be the last line of defense, the safeties can cover for a blitzer, blitz themselves or double a pass-catcher all from the same alignment.

With all that in mind, it’s easy to understand why teams struggle in the red zone. But the Falcons shouldn’t. In 2016, they were one of the best offenses in league history and ninth in the league in red zone touchdown percentage under Kyle Shanahan. At season’s end, Shanahan left to become the head coach in San Francisco. The following year, under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons plummeted to 23rd in red zone touchdown percentage. And based on the 20 percent they put up in Week 1 with mostly the same personnel from their history-making 2016 campaign, it would appear that things have not gotten better.

Asked about their red zone woes after the game, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said, “Our ability to score down there, that has to change.”

I guess acknowledgment is the first step. The next step should be adjustment. Here are some things the Falcons should consider heading into this week’s game against their division rival Carolina Panthers, who looked tough defensively against the Dallas Cowboys.

jones should be a target … and a decoy

Throwing it to Julio Jones is never a bad idea. What makes him special is his combination of size, athleticism and straight-line speed. From the high red, if they can isolate Jones in man coverage, getting him the ball with one defender to beat is a good plan. But once they get down to the low red, continuing to force him the ball isn’t smart because his speed is a nonfactor.

His size and athleticism still make him seem like a good target. But he isn’t, because, as I said earlier, when the defense plays man defense down there, the middle safety doesn’t have deep responsibilities and is free to help. Inevitably, he comes to take away the inside routes of Jones, which allows the corner to sit heavy on the outside to eliminate the fade route, where Jones’ size and athleticism could be an advantage. And against zone coverage, the corner can again sit hard outside of Jones because he has help inside.

The 2016 Falcons understood that, and Shanahan installed plays that were designed to make less heralded players, like the fullback and backup tight end, the primary receiver.

Attack the width of the field

In the low red, where there is no length of the field left to attack, the width of the field is key. Lateral quickness and the ability to change directions are more valuable than speed. Against both man and zone, a receiver who can shake defenders or quickly get to holes in the zone should be a prime red zone target for the Falcons. Players such as Calvin Ridley or Devonta Freeman against a backer, for instance.

To Sarkisian’s credit, in last week’s game against the Eagles he designed red zone plays in which Ridley and Freeman were open in the end zone on two separate plays. Ryan overthrew Freeman and forced the ball to a covered Jones when Ridley was open after getting the corner to bite on his first move.

The Falcons’ red zone dysfunction cost them a playoff win last season and a regular-season win this season. Granted, they were facing the eventual and defending Super Bowl champions. But the Falcons have championship expectations too, so this is exactly the type of team they need to beat. The good news is they have the players and know the scheme needed to improve.

Domonique Foxworth is a senior writer at Andscape. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.