HOUSTON – Kyle Shanahan will not be able to bring his Atlanta Falcons players -- or many of them, anyway -- with him to his next job as coach of the 49ers.
But he will bring a unique artistry of offense that should enable him to quickly adapt to the roster he will build along with 49ers general manager John Lynch.
As the Falcons continue preparations to face the New England Patriots on Sunday in Super Bowl 51, an assistant coach who was with Shanahan at previous stops in Houston and Washington marvels at Shanahan’s well-rounded ability to scheme during the week and push the right buttons on game days.
“I’ve never been around a guy who’s as impressive in the run game as the pass game,” Falcons quarterback coach Matt LaFleur told CSNBayArea.com on Wednesday.
“Usually, you have your specialty. You’re a passing guy or a run-game guy. He is off the charts in both areas, and I think that’s what makes him so special. It really helps him as he calls a game. He knows how things tie together.”
Under Shanahan, the Falcons led the league in total offense with 457.5 yards per game during the regular season. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s game soared. The favorite to win league MVP threw 38 touchdowns, seven interceptions and led the league with an astronomical passer rating of 117.1.
The Falcons also were fifth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 100 yards per game.
Running backs coach Bobby Turner spent 15 seasons on Mike Shanahan’s staff with the Denver Broncos. During that time, Shanahan’s run game produced eight of the top 11 single-season rushers in Broncos history. During that time, five different running backs rushed for more than 1,100 yards.
Kyle Shanahan’s design for the run game run game is rooted in what his father did with the Broncos’ zone scheme.
“It’s similar, but every coach and every person has his own stamp,” Turner said. “The bottom line, everyone says it’s the zone principle. But what is the zone? There’s outside zone, inside zone. There’s a stretch. You can have different coaches who work together have different philosophies. Overall, yeah, it’s the same, but Kyle has his own stamp.”
Turner said Kyle Shanahan will use the run game to set up big plays down the field – a goal that’s obviously easier to accomplish with a wide receiver such as Julio Jones lining up outside.
“At times, you can’t run it if they put eight or nine in the box,” Turner said. “It’s tough to run the ball. We might only get a yard on that play. But by doing that, being consistent and continually trying to run the ball, you exploit them through the air with the play-action game.
“Yes, it’s the same philosophy but when it comes down to it, we have players and his ability to put our players in position to make the big plays, he is awesome at doing that.”
One league source described how Shanahan is a master at studying the opposition to find the weak link in a defense. The Falcons set an NFL record with 13 different pass-catchers scoring touchdowns. Shanahan will use formations and motion to isolate the defender in a favorable matchup for his offense. Shanahan seems to thrive on third downs, in particular.
When the Falcons advanced to the Super Bowl with a 44-21 rout of the Green Bay Packers, Shanahan exploited the Packers’ coverage scheme for a remarkable 10-of-13 success rate on third downs.
“He’s got an uncanny ability and a great vision of how to maximize the potential of his players and put them in a position to be successful,” LaFleur said.
“We’re always trying to manipulate leverage or try to isolate some matchups and the best way to do that is to move guys in position, whether it’s motion or whatever, to really have success.”
Shanahan might have met his match against the Patriots. In addition to Bill Belichick’s well-documented defensive acumen, New England has added brain power in defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who chose a career in coaching over aeronautical engineering.
In other words, Shanahan will be playing chess against an actual rocket scientist.
“The tempo of their offense, the speed of what they do, all that stuff, it’s a huge challenge for us to get used to,” Patricia said. “When you see an offense that’s as good as this is and you haven’t seen them live, then it’s a whole different ball game when you step into that arena and you’re actually seeing the speed, the quickness and the tempo that they play with.”