Why Atlanta's Offense Keeps Rolling No Matter What

The Falcons' offense has looked unstoppable this season, and that continued in the NFC Championship game.

Defense wins championships, as the saying goes, but there was none to be found in the two conference championship games on Sunday.

The four teams that played for a shot at Super Bowl LI scored a total of 118 points, 80 of which came from the two winners.

It’s not much of a surprise, considering how these offenses played in the regular season and so far in the playoffs.

According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the lowest ranked offense remaining of the four but ranked ninth by Adjusted NEP per play on the season.

The two winners had the two best offenses by Adjusted NEP per play in the regular season, as the Atlanta Falcons ranked first and the New England Patriots ranked fourth.

It’s no surprise that the top-ranked offense from the regular season has been the most impressive throughout the playoffs and was the most dominant in the conference championship.

Ryan at the Helm

There’s only so much that can be said about Matt Ryan that hasn’t already been talked about ad nauseam during the regular season and throughout the playoffs. He led all quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back, he’s likely the league MVP, he was our MVP, and he keeps doing incredible things on the road to the Super Bowl.

In arguably the biggest game of Ryan’s career, he put up one of his best performances.

Ryan was worth 0.89 Passing NEP per drop back against the Green Bay Packers, which would have been the third-best single-game performance for any quarterback in the regular season with at least 20 drop backs, yet it would have only been Ryan’s second-best.

His Week 15 game against the San Francisco 49ers (0.97 Passing NEP per drop back) was the second-highest single-game mark of the season behind just Marcus Mariota’s Week 8 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars (0.98).

Here’s how Ryan’s Conference Championship game stacked up against the top regular season performances from 2016:

QB Week Opponent PNEP/DB
Marcus Mariota 8 JAX 0.98
Matt Ryan 15 SF 0.97
Matt Ryan NFCCG GB 0.89
Ben Roethlisberger 12 IND 0.88
Kirk Cousins 11 GB 0.87
Dak Prescott 16 DET 0.87

Ryan’s 33.98 Passing NEP in the game was more than 16 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs had total during the regular season.

He became the 11th quarterback since the merger to average more than 10.0 yards per attempt while passing at least 20 times. While his yards per attempt (10.32) ranks 10th out of those 11 games, his 392 pass yards is second, and his 38 attempts is the most among those quarterbacks.

The Alien

On the receiving end of many of Ryan’s passes was Julio Jones. Jones caught 9 of his 12 targets for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns.

He was worth 19.06 Reception NEP, which averages to 1.59 Reception NEP per target. During the regular season, Jones’ teammate Taylor Gabriel was the only receiver with at least 50 targets to be worth over 1.0 Reception NEP per target at 1.03.

Jones was worth more than a half point more during this game. After the game teammate Mohamed Sanu called Jones an alien.

Jones had little statistical impact in the game against the Packers during the regular season, but instead of allowing Green Bay’s focus on the top receiver to open up more for others, the Falcons allowed Jones to take advantage of the different coverages Green Bay was running.

In the second quarter, Jones ran a double move down the sideline so well that it sent cornerback Ladarius Gunter into the middle of the field by himself. Jones ran the route with safety Morgan Burnett shadowed over to his side of the field for bracket coverage. The route and throw was designed well enough to fit between the two defenders even if Gunter had stayed on Jones. Instead, it resulted in an easy 20-yard gain. (Video courtesy: NFL Game Pass)

Later in the quarter, the Falcons took advantage of the Packers’ zone coverage. Jones lined up on the outside and ran a quick in-route. Gunter, in zone, wanted to pass off Jones in coverage to the defender assigned to the middle of the field. But Taylor Gabriel as the slot receiver had run straight at that defender, which didn’t allow him to switch onto Jones.

That was another play perfectly designed to beat whatever coverage the Packers were going to run on that play. In man, Jones’s break would have been quick enough off the line to gain separation on Gunter, while Gabriel’s pick-like route opened the middle of the field. But like the play above, this catch and gain was made even easier by the Packers trying to pass Jones off from one defender to another.

Then of course there was the 73-yard touchdown that saw Jones beat Gunter by breaking through a defensive holding, before breaking Gunter’s tackle further down the field and Damarious Randall’s attempt a few yards later.

Moving On

Atlanta will now move on to the Super Bowl to meet New England. Bill Belichick and the Patriots notoriously game plan to take away an opponent’s top weapon on offense, which -- in this case -- would be Jones.

But the real top weapon for the Falcons’ offense has been Ryan’s comfort and grasp of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system. That’s allowed Ryan and the offense to have productive games even when Jones is limited or doesn’t play at all.

Even as Jones had a monster day against the Packers, seven other Falcons also had a reception. There are so many weapons who can be utilized on this offense that the loss or limitation of one doesn’t derail the whole system. Because the offense can keep moving when even when one piece is taken away, as a part was on Sunday -- Atlanta’s third-ranked run game by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play contributed 71 yards on the ground from running backs against the Packers -- it’s almost impossible to stop when everything is clicking.

The Falcons' offense isn’t just good: it’s deep and creative. The mastery of everything involved has fueled this team to a Super Bowl berth. If the run continues to go at its current pace, there might not be anything that can stop it.