ENGLEWOOD—Brilliance usually has simplicity at its core.
Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan -- whose father, former offensive Mastermind Mike Shanahan, was no doubt watching somewhere -- came up with a simple plan of attack against the otherwise brilliant Denver defense that is known for its ferocious pass rush and terrific, man-to-man playing secondary.
How to neutralize a pass rush? Get rid of the ball quickly. Where is man coverage most vulnerable? It better be the linebackers and not the cornerbacks.
And so Kyle Shanahan had his wizened, league-leading quarterback, Matt Ryan, get rid of the ball quickly to his two terrific running backs, Devonta Freeman (the rusher) and Tevin Coleman (the receiver).
Coleman and Freeman combined for 286 yards rushing and receiving in the Falcons’ 23-16 win Sunday against the Broncos. Coleman had 132 yards receiving. Simple! Brilliant!
“It was a tough day at the office,’’ said Broncos’ linebacker Brandon Marshall, who got beat on Coleman’s 31-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter that put Atlanta up, 20-3. “I was split out on the running backs maybe like six times. They caught the ball twice.’’
On one, Marshall said he had good coverage on Freeman, but the running back pivoted and Marshall tripped. Everyone saw Marshall trailing Coleman on the touchdown.
What you didn’t detect is it wasn’t Coleman’s speed, but a wrinkle off a familiar Falcons’ formation that beat Marshall from the jump.
“If you saw a couple plays before that I ran with him deep,’’ Marshall said. “So it’s not like I can’t run with the guys. I can definitely run with them because if you watched the film I did on several occasions. In that formation, they just got me. I wasn’t expecting them to run deep because they ran the same formation a couple plays before and he ran across the field. Kudos to their offensive coordinator. Kyle Shanahan did a helluva job.’’
The way to counter the running back-on-linebacker matchup is to play more zone. But Broncos’ defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said it wasn’t the system that brought trouble.
“We did the same thing against New England,’’ Phillips said. “They targeted the guy (James White) 16 times and they had (45) yards receiving. We played pretty much the same stuff we played against New England in the championship game (on Jan. 24) and I think we won. We just didn’t play it as well this time. … I think we could have played better.”
Will the San Diego Chargers look at how Atlanta attacked and try to slip running back Melvin Gordon into the pass game for their wizened quarterback, Philip Rivers? Gordon averages 60 yards rushing and 24 yards receiving a game.
“Our guys, I’m sure they’re going to be ready for the challenge coming up this week,’’ said Joe DeCamillis, the Broncos’ interim head coach. “I’m sure that they understand that they’re going to get attacked the same way and they’re going to be ready for it.”
Marshall welcomes other teams trying to pick on him and fellow inside linebacker Todd Davis.
“Oh yeah, it’s a copycat league but everybody doesn’t have backs like they do,’’ Marshall said of the Falcons’ tailback duo. “I’m pretty sure Coleman ran a 4.3 coming out of college. The guy’s extremely fast, he’s faster than most receivers. So everybody is not going to have backs like that. They can try to duplicate it but it won’t be the same.’’
What people should know about Marshall and Davis is they’re asked to do more in coverage than others. Many of the NFL linebackers considered elite in coverage – Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are often acclaimed as among the best – play in a zone.
“Zone all the time,’’ Marshall said. “And we play man all the time. As we did last year, you would see me and Danny (Trevathan) play man all the time, me and Todd play all the time. We’re going to get scrutinized and killed for getting beat in man coverage but we’re one of the few teams who puts our linebackers in that position. Just because they believe in us.’’
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