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Kyle Shanahan is taking the blame for the Falcons' collapse last night in the Super Bowl, reportedly telling people at the team hotel that he, "blew it." While his offense didn't produce its customary 30+ points, it's hard to imagine that they are responsible for surrendering a 25 point lead. Having re-watched the Super Bowl, I think Shanahan called an impressive game, through all four quarters. First: I must admit that as I am writing this, NFL Game Pass has not yet posted the All-22 coaches' film, so I can't see all of the receivers, their route packages, or the defensive coverage unless FOX's broadcast team saw fit to show them.
What I saw was a young offense, particularly the QB, that was depending upon momentum to allow them to play fast and instinctively. Although the offense was playing fast and fearless throughout the postseason, Ryan appeared tentative in the first two series, and at other key moments. While the offense moved the ball in the 1st quarter, Ryan seemed to wait for safe throws, and he waited for receivers to uncover completely before letting go of the ball. Without seeing all of the routes and the coverages, it appears that Ryan carries some, most, or all of the blame on the 5 sacks the Falcons surrendered.
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The first series started well, with Freeman finding ample room to run. On 2nd and 7 from midfield, Ryan completed his 1st pass. He waited for DiMarco to be all the way out into the flat before he threw, so his fullback was wedged in towards the sideline when he made the catch, with little room to run with the ball. The drive was killed on the next play.
1st Sack: On 3rd and 4, Ryan had Jones right away on the whip route (AKA shake-out) to his immediate left, with Sanu and Coleman also uncovering quickly on quick ins to his right. All three receiving options secured inside ball leverage and all three of them were at or beyond the sticks. If Ryan threw at the break to any of those three, the Falcons would have converted the 1st down, and they'd be likely to get at least a field goal out of the drive. By waiting for the receivers to break open and run free, he ran out of time and gave up 10 yards on the sack.
On the Falcons' 2nd drive, the ground game got going again. Ryan again completed a safe pass to DiMarco, this time next to the left sideline. The Falcons faced another manageable 3rd down when Ryan again inexplicably held the ball too long.
2nd Sack: On 3rd and 3, the Patriots crowded the line of scrimmage with 9 players, indicating that they likely had 2 deep safeties playing halves coverage (again, no All-22 yet). At the snap, the outside RCB played half-hearted press technique and settled into the flat. Sanu immediately broke open along the sideline while running his fade, beyond the CB and in front of the safety. That route and location (the "hole shot") is a classic cover 2 beater that Ryan should have spotted immediately. He never even looked left. He looked slow scanning the field. Tentative. Sack. Punt.
On Atlanta's ensuing defensive series, New England looked prepared to take over. They were moving the ball easily down the field, and some of the explosion seemed to be going out of the legs of the attacking Falcons' defense. On a physical LeGarrette Blount run, Atlanta MLB Deion Jones ripped at the ball and forced a fumble, ending a Patriots drive that seemed destined to score. The next drive featured a different Matt Ryan. Riding the momentum gifted to him by his defense, he got the ball out on time by decisively throwing to ball leverage, instead of waiting for wide open receivers. Shanahan kept the New England defense completely off-balance, as Ryan's resurgence allowed the Falcons offense to find room with both the run and pass, stretching the defense laterally and vertically. The third drive is exemplary of what a balanced, fast Kyle Shanahan offense looks like. Freeman gives the Falcons the lead with a monster cut and an easy jog into the end zone.
The Falcon's fourth drive of the game featured a passing offense that was devastatingly effective enough to warrant comments on each play:
1st play of the series: Ryan had his big boy pants on. Freeman missed completely on his block, allowing a free rusher at Ryan. Ryan converted anyway by throwing ON TIME when he hit the top of his drop. Big gain to a wide-open Gabriel.
2nd play: Ryan had two routes open immediately on a boot, but he saw Jones singled up w/outside leverage and realized he had time to hold the ball. He hit the second big gain in a row, this time on a deep comeback route to Jones. Shanahan, knowing Atlanta gashed NE running the ball in the previous series, expected the Patriots to overplay the run and they did, giving Ryan time to wait for Jones.
3rd play: Outside zone had nothing, but 8 Patriots flowed hard to the tackle. This defensive pursuit is what made the bootleg so effective on the previous play. Shanahan shrewdly thought NE would underplay the run after getting burned down the field by the bootleg. NE didn't overreact this time. Good defense.
4th play: Ryan got greedy. Considering how cautious he played in the 1st quarter, this wasn't a terrible development, but he was feeling himself a bit too much there. Ryan forced a back shoulder fade to Hooper when Chung was in a perfect hip-pocket relationship with Hooper to take away that exact throw. Hooper did a good job protecting Ryan's throw and avoiding an interception. On the other side of the play, the Falcons' fullback, Patrick DiMarco, got enough of the CB covering Gabriel in their mesh concept that there were 5 free yards underneath to Gabriel. It had potential to break wide open if DiMarco slowed the CB by one more step. Ryan looked the wrong way, threw the wrong way, and threw to the wrong leverage, but the play would have worked if he diagnosed man coverage to his left in pre-snap.
5th play: It was 3rd down in the red zone, so there's a good chance Bill Belichick had dictated that Julio Jones be doubled in these scenarios (per Belichick's philosophy to not get beat by any team's best player). Shanahan sent Jones on a skinny post to occupy both the safety and the CB. Ryan knew Hooper was again in single coverage with Chung, this time running a stick nod on the left. Jones then pulled coverage, leaving no one home to assist over the top or to the inside. It was not a great route, as Hooper's lazy head fake got only one false step from Chung, who recovered quickly. It was still the right throw with everyone else covered, and Chung was too small to prevent Hooper from out-muscling him to the inside. Ryan put it where it needed to be, and Hooper adjusted well to come back inside to the throw. Great call by Shanahan, as Chung couldn't help but remember the big breakup he just made on the previous play, and he played it like another fade from the snap.
This is how effective a Kyle Shanahan offense can be in the air, with confident QB play and throws made on time, generally to the right receiver.
Coming out of the locker room after more than one hour without the ball, the offense was still in attack mode. A missed block on Hightower blew up an otherwise promising run play, resulting in a loss of 3 yards. Ryan quickly took the open outlet to Freeman on 2nd down, bringing up a manageable 3rd and 6. By now, Shanahan has recognized how much difficulty NE CBs have sticking to Gabriel when he has time to throw some moves. He separated on a comeback and Ryan throws a little late, but Gabriel tried to catch the ball with his body, while the defender was able to close on the late throw and defend the pass. It was a 1st down if Gabriel extended his arms to the catch and closed on the ball, or if Ryan threw a beat sooner.
On their 2nd drive of the half, Atlanta was back on the attack. The zone runs out of the shotgun had set up a play action pass to Gabriel on a slant with New England's linebackers sucked up to the line of scrimmage. Gabriel runs a great post route, destroying the single coverage Shanahan has discovered by noting New England giving safety coverage to the running backs on their check down routes. The eventual TD pass looked like another read option fake until Coleman continued his path to a wheel route toward the front pylon. Three in-breaking routes from tight trips right left no DBs home to the right and created a natural (and legal) pick for Ninkovitch to fight through, giving him no chance to keep up with Coleman. That was a beautiful red zone play design called at the perfect time. The defense was helpless. Shanahan was stealing points there.
At this point, Falcons defenders appeared to be playing to protect a lead. The coaches were still calling up elaborate stunts, but the pass rushers were jogging (Tom Brady pulled away from Brooks Reed in the open field) and the DBs were playing looser coverage to prevent deep passes. The tough thing about momentum: once you loosen up, it's hard, within the flow of a game, to tighten back up again.
The next offensive drive was called well, and it was executed well as the drive started. On 1st down, Ryan hit Hooper for an open, easy 9 yards. On 2nd down, Ryan chose to hand off on an obvious pass read on an outside zone RPO. With the MLB left unblocked, he was Ryan's read. As soon as he stepped play side on the run, Ryan should have thrown the quick slant to Sanu, who instantly won inside leverage from the slot. It doesn't matter anyway, because of the holding call, but this was where you begin to see Ryan's vision start to narrow and his caution beginning to set back in. Handing the ball off was safe, but throwing to Sanu would've been right. On the next play, Ryan made the right decision to throw to Hooper, but he had to throw late and the pass was incomplete. The route package broke Hooper wide open underneath (good play design), but RT Schraeder gave up immediate pressure (poor execution), and the time it took Ryan to avoid the sack and slide from pressure caused Hooper to cover himself with Chung, who was already covering Freeman in the flat. Good play call/bad protection. The drive stalls on the next play.
3rd Sack: Ryan surrendered another avoidable sack. To be fair, his protection was pretty bad. Atlanta has five men to block New England's five rushers, so Ryan needed to know to get the ball out in a hurry. Unfortunately, the only Falcons lineman interested in preserving the pocket had a broken leg. Ryan had Hooper and what looked to be Gabriel (again, no All-22 yet) working against the safety with a shallow in/slant combination, meaning either Hooper was open or the safety covered Hooper, and Gabriel had inside leverage on the snap. There appeared to be an opportunity for Ryan to get the ball out to either Hooper or Gabriel before the pressure closed in, if he threw with anticipation. By waiting for a receiver to completely uncover, Ryan ran out of time. Punt.
The next series is where the game irreversibly turned. The Falcons got stuffed on an interesting toss dive play on 2nd and 1 and elected to throw on 3rd and 1.
4th Sack: The conversion is there. Even though Freeman's chip block was awful, he leaked out and was sitting near the LOS with no defenders around him. If Ryan dropped a gimme pass over the linemen, Freeman could have easily gained the 1st down with room to break a big play. Without the coaches' film, we can't see what coverage/route Ryan was seeing and deciding to take a shot on, but the easy conversion was there to his right if he didn't predetermine the throw down the field. Freeman's poor effort in blocking Hightower and Ryan's failure to see the open check down killed the drive. The Patriots converted the resulting sack fumble into a TD.
The next series started well, with Ryan fixing his inability to find Freeman on the check down resulting in a big gain on 1st down. After the Falcons worked their way into position for a comfortable, likely game-sealing, field goal, a well-timed toss sweep got wrecked when Sanu's defender crossed his face, picking off the pulling OT and forcing Freeman off of his attack track. This slowed Freeman's path to the outside and robbed him of his lead blocker. The next two plays were awful.
5th Sack: On 2nd and 11, Ryan had over three seconds before the rush reached him, and he had Sanu 3 yards beyond the LOS with clear ball leverage to Ryan's left for an easy pickup to beat the rush and avoid the sack. If Ryan didn't like the throw, he should have at least thrown a dart at Sanu's feet to avoid the sack. He looked paralyzed. Not only did he surrender an awful sack, but he managed to lose 12 yards on his way to the ground.
Matthews followed up with a hog-tie tackle of a holding penalty on the next play, which negated a short completion and pushed the Falcons completely out of field goal range.
On 3rd and 23, Ryan threw quickly to avoid phantom pressure. He didn't make a terrible decision to try and fit the ball to Gabriel on the sideline, and he threw before Gabriel breaks to the sideline, which showed that he was getting back some of the confidence necessary to throw with anticipation. As tight as Gabriel was to the sideline, the throw needed to be perfect, but it sailed wide. Ryan had time to hold the ball a moment longer and hit Sanu, whose deep in was about to break open behind both DBs rolling down to bracket Jones' shallow crossing route. Ryan likely felt the need to get the ball out of his hands quickly to avoid surrendering another bad sack, but he had the time to find a better option on this play. After punting the ball away, the Falcons never held it again.
Kyle Shanahan's offense didn't have the ball for many plays in the Super Bowl, but his scheme consistently provided running lanes, open receivers, and plays to be made with proper execution. While it's easy to question his decisions to pass the ball in conventional running scenarios, the plays were there to be made. He could have been instructed to play for the touchdown, he may have been playing under his head coach's mandate to attack at all times, or he may have made the call all by himself, calling passing plays he knew would be open with everyone expecting a run. With his team losing and Shanahan himself taking the blame for the loss, it's easy for 49ers fans to feel less excited about his imminent hiring than they did days ago. Not even discussing the folly in reacting too strongly to the outcome of one game when evaluating a career, 49ers fans should rest easy knowing that Shanahan consistently had his team in position to make plays through all four quarters of the game.