The Falcons went into their Wild Card game against the Rams with the goal of taking away Todd Gurley and the running game early. The idea was to make Jared Goff and the Rams’ passing attack have to beat them. Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn had to feel good about his team’s chances if they could force the Rams to try and win through the air due to the personnel matchup being tilted in Atlanta’s favor. It would come down to being able to handle the Rams’ passing scheme, something Sean McVay employed brilliantly throughout 2017 to orchestrate one of the greatest offensive turnarounds in NFL history. On Saturday night, the Falcons looked more than prepared. The play below is a great illustration of this.
Here, the Rams faced a 3rd-and-7 and anticipated some form of man-coverage, a common look from Atlanta’s defense (and throughout the NFL) in this situation. They aligned with 3 wide receivers in a trips bunch formation to Jared Goff’s right.
The idea with trips bunch is to make it difficult for defenses to play press-man coverage. The two receivers off the line of scrimmage have more wiggle room to make a move before defenders can get their hands on them. The idea with trips bunch is also to create traffic that defensive backs have to fight through. From an offensive perspective, the hope is that this will create a natural rub (or confusion in assignments if defensive backs are matching up to the receivers’ releases instead of to the man), and a receiver will be left wide open with room to run after the catch.
The Falcons were prepared for this, as the Rams have often used similar formations throughout the season. Atlanta aligned their corners, Brian Poole, Robert Alford, and Desmond Trufant, at three different levels.
This was to avoid the potential for traffic and natural rubs. After the snap, you can see how the Falcons were able to cleanly match up to L.A.’s receivers.
Another element to consider here is that the Falcons were actually playing 2-man (man coverage underneath with 2 safeties over the top).
The Falcons are a predominant single-high safety team that utilizes both cover-3 and man-free variations. This 2-man look is something they call from time to time to switch things up, and they did this on multiple key plays throughout Saturday’s game. 2-man enables the defensive backs in man coverage to play inside and underneath in a “trail technique” to cut off any easy throws for the quarterback. They can do this because they know they have help over the top. A few more beats into the play, and you can see that this is exactly how Atlanta’s defensive backs were playing this.
That’s tight coverage across the board, something we saw from the Falcons all night. The only receiver Goff had open was his shallow cross against Desmond Trufant. Not only was this route short of the first-down marker, but Trufant was closing fast and had a clear path to his receiver due to Atlanta’s initial alignment.
By the time Goff was ready to throw the ball, Trufant was all over his receiver and in perfect position to make the play.
The Falcons were aware of, and prepared for, the Rams’ approach all night. Because they were ready for any scheme Los Angeles threw their way, they were able to let their talented secondary take over. This was an advantage in Atlanta’s favor, and they smothered L.A.’s receivers.
The Falcons’ secondary is certainly among the NFL’s best. They are a fast and aggressive unit that quickly reads and reacts to routes when playing zone and regularly allows little breathing room in man coverage. Throw in the fact that the rest of the defense shares the same quick and aggressive trait, and you’re talking about a unit that no offense wants to face with their season on the line. The Rams certainly didn’t last weekend.
One other point to mention here is that the Falcons were able to get pressure on Goff throughout the night. This gave him even less time to find the open receiver or best matchup and exploit it. In particular, Atlanta’s rookie 1st-round draft pick, defensive end Takkarist McKinley, repeatedly jumped out on film. He regularly put pressure on Jared Goff and was the cause for several negative plays for the Rams offense.
The Falcons’ young and talented defense is peaking at the right time of the season. They are healthier and one year wiser than they were during last season’s playoff run. This could spell trouble for the #1-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round.