If it was not before, it is now common knowledge among Falcons fans that Dirk Koetter will not be a part of any of the teams’ plans for the 2021 season. Koetter has single handily turned this once explosive offense into a hallow and predictable version of Kyle Shanahan’s system that aided Matt Ryan in earning an MVP award.
The most infuriating part of watching Koetter call a game has to be the offense’s inefficiency in the red zone, but these troubles are nothing new. Jason Butt of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted the offense’s poor play, “If not for the Falcons’ late surge, which actually put them in position to possibly win the game, the offensive output was almost a carbon copy of the game from two weeks ago,” Butt writes. “Just like in the first meeting, the Falcons stalled on three offensive drives and settled for field goals from place-kicker Younghoe Koo, who netted a 53-yarder on one of his attempts. The third quarter resulted in two Falcons’ punts.”
Three different stalled drives that resulted in three field goals is now a recurring trend. It is not becoming a problem; it is already developing into this team’s identity. To better understand the offensive red zone woes, we will analyze the statistics.
Although the Falcons stall in the red zone, the team is not struggling to move the ball the other 80 yards. The offense ranks 11th in the league with 3.7 red zone scoring attempts per game. To put things into perspective, the hottest offense in the league – Green Bay Packers – ranks 8th in the league with 3.8 red zone scoring attempts per game. It is not about getting inside the opponent’s 20-yard line; it is about converting red zone trips into touchdowns.
Comparing the red zone scoring of the Packers and Falcons is a better indicator of Atlanta’s shortcomings. The Falcons rank 29th in the league with a 50% red zone touchdown (only) scoring percentage. Whereas the Packers rank 2nd with over a 75% red zone touchdown (only) scoring percentage. Green Bay is averaging just 0.1 more red zone attempts per game but is converting 25% more of those into touchdowns.
Field goals do not win games, as Atlanta has shown to be true this year. The Falcons converting 25% fewer touchdowns than the Packers has a profound effect on the points per red zone trip. Atlanta is scoring (touchdowns and field goals) 4.79 points per red zone trip, which is ranked 22nd in the league. Green Bay is scoring 5.7 points per trip, good for 3rd in the NFL. That is a sizeable difference between teams that have a similar amount of red zone attempts.
Atlanta’s touchdown to field goal ratio is telling of this scoring difference. The Packers rank 2nd in the NFL with a 3.23 ratio, while the Falcons rank 30th with a .97 touchdown to field goal ratio. This means the Falcons are kicking more field goals than they are scoring touchdowns, which is not a formula for success. The Falcons are kicking field goals on 25% of their drives, which is 1st in the NFL. The Packers are kicking field goals on 12% of their drives, which is 29th in the NFL.
The most notable difference between these two offenses is the play-calling and scheme. Matt LaFleur comes from the Shanahan coaching tree, which utilizes formations and personnel mismatches. Koetter hardly utilizes these condensed formations that deploy mesh, drive, rub, crossing routes for easy completions. Green Bay’s offense is predicated on the split zone run game but then uses the same formations with the same personnel for play-action, screens, and counters. Defenses see one motion in one formation and think of five or six different plays; one play in the first half is called and ran to set up a future play call in the second half.
In the red zone, the Falcons personnel groupings and play-calling are questionable. When in 11 (3 WR) personnel, Atlanta is calling 74% of the plays as passes. Those 74% passes and 26% runs have a 37% success rate, which accounted for by far the most snaps (73) in the red zone. The difference is the Packers are successful on 57% of plays calling 63% (pass) / 37% (run), which is significantly less predictable than three-quarters of the time calling a pass. (all personnel statistics are from Sharpefootballstats)
But the discrepancies do not end there. In 12 (2 WR) personnel, the Falcons are 29% successful on 29% (pass) / 71% (run) of all their plays. Comparatively, the Packers have a much more balanced approach in 12 personnel, calling passes on 40% of plays and runs on the other 60%. The Packers are a much more balanced offense that is less predictable. Need more proof? In 21 (2 WR) personnel, the Falcons have a 25% (pass) and 75% (run) play calling ratio. Whereas the Packers have a 52% (pass) and 48% (run) play calling ratio. (all personnel statistics are from Sharpefootballstats)
Above is a chart of the red-zone tendencies and play frequencies vs. success of the Falcons and Packers offenses. The first down play call and resulting success of the play are astounding. The Packers are at an ideal 50/50 pass/run play call when in the red zone with 1st and 10 on the chains. The Falcons are at a predictable 32/68 pass/run play call in the same situation. See the problem?
Those first down calls result in mostly 2nd and short (1-3 yards) for Green Bay, while the Falcons called the most plays from 2nd and long (8-10). The trend continues on 3rd down. The Packers called most of their 3rd-down plays within 1-3 yards of the first down marker, while the Falcons called most their 3rd-down plays within 4-7 yards of the first down. The play-calls being balanced gives the offense a better chance of dealing with short-yardage 2nd and 3rd downs.
The entire offense in Green Bay has a plan; one play call sets up another. This is the modern NFL offense, and if the Falcons do not hire someone capable of using personnel and formations for mismatches, then it will be much of the same from the next regime.