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Kyle Shanahan’s cunning use of tight ends

Atlanta’s TEs don’t actually have a ton of receiving yards, but they’re essential to his offense.

Kyle Shanahan’s use of tight ends in Atlanta offers an interesting angle on his shrewd offense. They don’t actually pile up that many yards; in the 2016 regular season, Falcons TEs totaled 788 yards, just 15 percent of the team’s receiving total. (The Niners gained 833 TE yards, more than a quarter of their less productive passing game, in part because there were so few good alternatives.)

But Atlanta’s tight ends play a crucial role that goes beyond just blocking on run plays. Shanahan uses them cleverly to deceive and spread out defenders, on pass plays as much or more than runs. How can you not love a 4 Verticals play where 2 tight ends and a running back are going deep -- and Julio Jones is your checkdown?

In particular, Shanahan uses more 13 personnel formations (with one running back and 3 tight ends) than other NFL coaches, and moves his TEs across the formation both pre- and post-snap to manipulate defensive spacing. There aren’t good global statistics for either move — see my technical note below — but when you look at Atlanta’s touchdowns and explosion plays, one or both of these tactics is often there.

An encouraging sign for 49ers fans is that Shanahan was able to run three-tight-end plays without a particularly gifted TE corps. Even when his leading TE (Jacob Tamme) was knocked out for the season and rookie Austin Hooper missed a couple games, Shanny got production from 4th and 5th TEs Joshua Perkins and D.J. Tialavea.

Tialavea has only played in two games during three seasons as a pro, and has one career target — but it was a touchdown against Carolina this year. My point is, this scheme doesn’t require TEs as talented as New England’s.

Shanahan’s use of 13 personnel has gotten lots of attention from writers this year, in part because it’s unusual. Around the league, teams run 13 personnel about 2% of the time, usually in short yardage situations. (It’s considered a run “tell.”)

By my count, though, Shanny called it 77 times in the regular season this year, almost eight percent of Atlanta’s plays, while the Niners ran just seven (0.7 percent). By comparison, Seattle ran it 42 times (an above-average 4.2%) and the Patriots? Not once.

Even more surprising is that Atlanta ran 13 personnel more often on passing plays (41 to 36), and many of those were on first down and/or showed an empty backfield with the running back split wide or in the slot. This reshapes 13 from a heavy run package to a flexible and deceptive spread formation.

Mark Shofield at Inside the Pylon does a good job of breaking down Atlanta’s early season use of 13 personnel, especially an outside zone play-action boot where the third TE (Austin Hooper) quietly blocks across the formation for a while before releasing on a wheel route. (Matt Bowen calls this the “TE Throwback,” and says to watch for it Sunday against New England.) This play went for 32 yards against Oakland and then a TD against Carolina, even though they had seen it on the Oakland tape.

I broke down Atlanta’s games against Arizona and Seattle this year to see how these techniques work on the 49ers conference rivals.

In mid-October, home team Seattle handed the Falcons one of just five losses, 26-24. Their famous defense shut down Atlanta almost completely in the first half - punt, fumble, FG, punt - but Ryan exploded for 220 yards and three TDs in the third quarter, a good sign for Shanahan’s ability to make adjustments.

Early in the period, on Seattle’s 36, the Falcons lined up in 13 personnel with Tamme (83) tight left, Toilolo (80) and Hooper (81) in wing alignment on the right end of the line, and Julio Jones (11) in the left slot. Before the play, Hooper motioned across the formation to set up just outside the numbers, pulling Richard Sherman away from Jones to cover him. After the snap, Hooper ran a short zigzag while Tamme was open on a corner route and Julio Jones took off on a straight line to the left pylon, wide open for an easy touchdown.

The third TD of that quarter came in 13 personnel again, this time with Hooper tight right and Tamme and Toilolo tight left in wing formation. All three went deep and no one picked up Toilolo, who got an easy 46-yard TD on a wheel route.

By the time Arizona came to town in Week 12, Tamme (Atlanta’s best TE) was on the IR list, so there were fewer 3-TE looks. This was the breakout game for wee WR Taylor Gabriel, who notched two TDs, 75 yards receiving and a 27 yard run against that tough defense, less than three months after he had been released by Cleveland (of all teams).

Gabriel is a restricted free agent after this season, and there is no draft pick compensation because he was a UDFA. Atlanta has the right to match any offers he receives, but they will have a lot of other salary demands after getting to the Super Bowl. The Niners’ dire need for a WR, stockpile of salary cap cash, and (presumed) signing of Shanahan should give them the inside track if they want to bid for his services.

Correction: (h/t Christopher.Burns) The first round tender would probably prevent any other team from offering him, but it would leave him an unrestricted free agent after next year. Atlanta might prefer to trade him for cheaper compensation, perhaps a 3rd round pick, instead of a one-and-done contract. That’s what the Saints did with Chris Ivory in 2013.

All three of Gabriel’s big plays featured a key role for tight ends. Early in the 2nd quarter, the Falcons lined up in 21 personnel with Gabriel in the right slot. He went in orbit motion against the flow of the play and picked up 27 yards on an end-around. Toilolo ran across the formation post-snap in the same direction as Gabriel and, just as on the TE Throwback play, blocked a little before breaking downfield. But instead of running a wheel route, he raced ahead of the speedy WR to clear his path, pushing aside safety DJ Swearinger a full 30 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Taylor Gabriel first TD vs Arizona

Gabriel’s first TD was a slot screen with a great run after the catch. Toilolo and Hooper lined up next to each other on the right end of the line. This time, Toilolo ran across the formation pre-snap to block Gabriel’s defender toward the sideline as the WR cut inside him.

Meanwhile, Hooper released down the seam (an RPO?) before cutting over to help block. He met up with Gabriel around the 10-yard line, but his blocking wasn’t needed as the WR juked several DBs on his way to paydirt.

By the fourth quarter, the Cardinals had figured out that TE motion meant trouble. So when Hooper came left to right pre-snap before releasing on a corner route, four different defenders shifted in that direction (yellow lines). QB Matt Ryan threw a screen to Gabriel in the left slot that they had all just moved away from. The WR ran 7 yards downfield before cutting outside and turning the corner with stunning speed, diving across the pylon.

Austin Hooper makes the defense shift

There’s a lot to like in Shanahan’s deployment of tight ends. For the Niners, the news is even better because he doesn’t seem to need top TE talent, and even with several years of tape on his schemes, the league’s DCs haven’t figured out how to stop him.

* Technical note: there is no direct statistic for personnel groupings that I know of, in the traditional “11 personnel,” “21 personnel” format. The NFL stats for offensive formations list only the number of tight ends and wide receivers in each. So, can’t you just subtract those two numbers from five to calculate the number of RBs? Yes, and that’s what I did, but Fooch pointed out that this doesn’t work on tackle-eligible plays, where this formula shows one-too-many RBs.

The only way to correct this is to go through the separate list of each different offensive lineup by player names, and match up the ones with six OL to the formations. I did that for Atlanta, finding just one tackle-eligible lineup that was used on 7 plays (out of 996 total) in short yardage situations. It was used on six runs for an average of 0.29 yards — and 3 TDs. I manually corrected these 7 plays from 23 personnel to 22, but didn’t take this step with other NFL teams because it’s extremely time consuming and didn’t change results significantly. So bear in mind that I’m slightly comparing apples to oranges here, or at least Fuji apples to Pink Lady apples.