It may now seem predestined that Atlanta would be playing in the Super Bowl. They rolled through the NFC playoffs, winning the two playoff contests by comfortable margins and averaging 40 points a game.
It was an opportunity, though, that they grasped by exhibiting boldness when many teams would have cowered. Yes, Atlanta has a great offense. We’ve often seen coaches, though, still play conservatively with great offenses, when pressed with difficult situations.
It’s easy to forget now, but Atlanta trailed Seattle in the first half. They then survived a Devin Hester punt return that was called back by penalty, got the safety on Russell Wilson, and added a field goal, and with just over four minutes left in the half, had a slim 12-10 lead. Russell Wilson threw short to Doug Baldwin, and he was stopped just shy of the first down marker, at the Seattle 39.
Those of us who study such things would say that teams are too conservative on 4th and 1, and that they should go for it far more often, even on the “wrong side of the field.” Playing against the league’s best offense should only strengthen that approach. Nevertheless, Seattle punted–a safe, orthodox decision.
And it worked out as well as possible. Jon Ryan hit a punt that bounced at the 16, in front of the punt returner who waved everyone off, and then it rolled and toppled forward, until it was casually touched down inside the Atlanta 1-yard line.
NFL orthodoxy here dictates the offense come out and concede a down, while carving out space, every bit as much as it would punt and play defense, and kick the extra point rather than chase a risky two-point try early in the game.
Pinning an opponent on the goal line to start a drive, while being the wet dream that jolts coaches awake while sleeping in the office at 3 a.m., is a relatively rare occurrence. It had happened 17 times a season over the past five years, basically once a week, when Atlanta sent the offense on with that slim lead, less than 4 minutes left, and facing 99 yards to a score.
Coaches ran 70% of the time in that situation, often with quarterback sneaks, and almost always with quick-hitting inside runs to avoid losses, in the first half of games over the last five years. In 2016, it had been over 80% runs to start those drives.
That’s not to say that it’s good strategy. Teams that pass on first down when pinned at their own one-yard line (first half of games, 2012-2016) completed 69% of passes, and averaged 11.1 yards per attempt. The last incompletion was in the 2013 season. They gained a first down (either on that play or in the next two) on 74% of those possessions. Only one first down pass attempt resulted in a safety on a sack (3.8% of passes).
Meanwhile, the runs produced five safeties (8.3% of runs), averaged only 2.1 yards per rush, and the team ended up getting a first down only 45% of the time, nearly a 30% dropoff by starting scared and clearing space.
Matt Ryan not only threw from his own end zone, he came out in shotgun, standing in the middle of his end zone. Tevin Coleman was on his right, but then he was motioned out. That’s right, they went empty backfield with most of the linemen having their feet on the goal line.
Going empty backfield created the attacking matchup they wanted. Julio Jones was matched up with Richard Sherman in tight on the right side. Tevin Coleman, a legitimate threat out of the backfield as a receiver, then motioned outside of Jones, drawing Sherman to the outside receiver. Kam Chancellor was then put in coverage on Julio Jones, playing well off the line. Coleman ran a deep route pulling Sherman back, Julio ran a quick out, and it was an easy pitch-and-catch that didn’t look big at the time, but was huge in its defiance of convention.
John Lynch, who is now the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers and likely tied to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, said after that completion: “They don’t play scared. They attack people. When you have great weapons, that’s how you should play.”
Eight more passes (with nary a run), 99 yards, and Atlanta took a 19-10 lead with less than a minute remaining. The next time Seattle ran a meaningful offensive attempt to score (they ran out the clock on two runs to end the half), they were down 26-10.
Fortune favors the bold, and fortune since then has been in favor of a franchise that had been to one Super Bowl ever, going against two franchises that had recent Super Bowl titles. It all started when things weren’t so certain, when Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan looked out across a sea of green ahead and saw possibility, instead of looking at the painted turf below Matt Ryan to see problems.