The Falcons aren’t going to sign any offensive free agent or draft an offensive prospect that will make a more substantial difference from day one than Arthur Smith. There are some question marks at center and guard, but other than that, the starters are essentially set for Smith’s offense. But the fact of the matter remains, the Titans’ offensive personnel isn’t superior to the Falcons, and Smith was the difference-maker in Tennessee, not Mike Vrabel, Ryan Tannehill, or Derrick Henry.
In 2019, as a first-time offensive coordinator, Smith led the Titans to a league-high in red-zone efficiency — the highest since the 2013 Denver Broncos (76.1) — at 75.6 percent. They were third in rushing offense (138.9 yards per game) and fourth in yards per play (6.12). Smith oversaw an offense in 2020 that produced the second-most total yards per game, primarily attributed to building play-action off the workhorse, Derrick Henry.
But that doesn’t mean Henry could plug and play in any offense; remember, the scheme is superior to talent. Before Smith (2016-2018), Henry carried the ball over 500 times for 2,293 yards (4.6 YPC) and 22 touchdowns compared to his 681 carries for 3,567 yards (5.2) and 33 touchdowns. So, as I’ve said before, who exactly made who?
To accomplish this incredibly productive offense, Smith deploys multiple plays — both run and pass — within the same formation with the same pre-snap motion. Of the Titan’s total pass plays, 49% came out of 1-1 personnel, and 30% came out of 1-2 personnel. The Titans’ offense was extremely balanced, 40% of all plays came out of 1-1 personnel, and 33% came out of 1-2 personnel. That is three-quarters of the playbook out of just two formations.
Smith used a ton of outside zone, which is similar to Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur’s systems, featuring a combination of zone-running mixed with some gap-scheme runs. They establish the run and then work passing concepts off boot action, jet sweets, and pre-snap motion. Any one of the tight ends, wide receivers, or running backs is a threat to touch the ball at any moment, forcing the defense to account for everyone.
An innovative play-caller with a wide variety of motions and intriguing formations — regularly utilizing tight and bunch sets, which is an effective use of space that causes traffic and confusion — Smith puts his quarterback in a better position to succeed than Dirk Koetter ever did with Matty Ice. A fundamental difference between the two offenses is how much more Ryan will be under center in 2021 than he was in 2020. According to Sharp Football Stats, 48% of plays started under center in Koetter’s offense, while 59% of the Titans’ plays started under center. One of Smith’s best traits is his ability to stay one step ahead. He frequently shows the defense a certain look on one play and then later builds off that same look to run something completely different.
The zone scheme made up most of the Titans’ run calls a year ago — split zone and inside zone, to be specific. Gap runs are included, but with a big back like Henry, they actually ran more outside zone than one would expect. Smith occasionally loves to call the classic duo, but the play below is an example of a split zone run.
Derrick Henry. Split zone run pic.twitter.com/zYXAhcutjA
— SportsTalkATL Alex (@GeauxSportsTalk) January 18, 2021
As you can see, the creativity by Smith to use eye candy post-snap creates passing lanes or, in this case, running lanes. He gets the linebackers and safety to flare out with the tight end in motion, which opens up a huge lane for Henry to run through. But he uses this constant production in the run game to make the defense vulnerable against the play-action pass.
Ryan Tannehill-AJ Brown. PA pic.twitter.com/W3x7FFsg6x
— SportsTalkATL Alex (@SportsTalkATLal) January 19, 2021
AJ Brown is running a curl but crossers, curls, digs, and other routes over the middle of the field are key components of this offense. Establishing the run sets this play up by forcing the linebackers to key on the running back and vacate their zone behind them. Thus allowing Brown to settle between them and the safeties over the top for an easy first down. The stress this type of offense puts on opposing linebackers is enormous.
This offense doesn’t need many more additions other than interior offensive linemen, specifically one who is a mauler like Quinn Meinerz, Landon Dickerson, or Kendrick Green. Pricey free agents aren’t going to put this team over the top just yet. Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith must first establish a winning culture, and developing in-house talent will be key to quickly ascending. Falcons fans should be excited to see how Smith uses Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst, and Mike Davis in 2021.