- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015

ASHBURN — Whenever a team has a scheduled game against a former player or member of the coaching staff, the same questions always seem to surface.

Is there an advantage going against so-and-so and knowing his tendencies? Or, in a coach’s case, is there an advantage from having players that are familiar with the former coach’s scheme?

Naturally, Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden was asked the latter this week as the team prepares to face the Atlanta Falcons and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on Sunday. Shanahan was the Redskins‘ offensive coordinator from 2010 through 2013 under his dad, Mike.

“The only advantage we have is if Kyle decides to play,” Gruden joked. “He’s doing a great job in Atlanta.”

Shanahan will leave the playing to quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman — tools he has utilized in his creative scheme to revitalize a Falcons offense that is the second-highest scoring unit in the NFL.

“I thought it’d be a great fit for both of us,” said first-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn. “So, I tried to explain to him that we were going to run a style defensively that I was familiar with and give him the freedom and creativity to do his thing on offense. I think that’s probably why he and I have been such a good fit together.”

When Shanahan joined the Falcons, who combined for just 10 wins in the last two seasons, they had the passing weapons in place like Ryan and Jones. The Falcons had a top-10 passing offense in both those seasons, but they lacked the balance of a strong running game. In 2013, the Falcons ranked last in the NFL with 1,247 team rushing yards. In 2014, they ranked 24th with 1,498 yards.

“We’re just trying like crazy to have a really balanced attack that’s tough as can be,” Quinn said.

The Falcons have continued to succeed as a passing team. Ryan ranks second in the league with 1,202 passing yards, and Jones leads the league with 38 catches. His 478 receiving yards are tied for first with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown.

Shanahan has implemented his familiar zone-blocking scheme to jump-start the Falcons‘ rushing attack and has had great success. Atlanta only ranks 13th with 454 yards, but its nine rushing touchdowns are the most in the NFL.
It’s a scheme very similar to what he ran in 2012 when the Redskins led the NFL with 2,709 rushing yards.

“When I watch the film, I recognize the calls,” said sixth-year left tackle Trent Williams. “If I hear them over the TV, I recognize all the plays. It’s the same offense. I still call those calls sometimes when I’m doing this offense because it’s so embedded in my memory.”

That also works in reverse. Gruden told Atlanta-based reporters earlier in the week that some of the terminology for the Redskins‘ offensive scheme is the same as it was for Shanahan — and Shanahan said Thursday he believes that’s common around the league.

“I worked with Sean [McVay] for four years, who’s their offensive coordinator, and I know you’re a product of your environment, so I’m sure they’re doing some things now that we did when I was there with Sean,” Shanahan told reporters. “It’s real similar across the league, too. There’s a lot of people who have similar terminologies. Everyone runs similar plays. There’s different ways to do things — differeent techniques, different philosophies — but I don’t think that’s too big of a deal, because it’s pretty close to that all over the league.”

One of the Falcons‘ first moves in improving the run game was making sure Shanahan had the right blockers. They signed former Redskins right guard Chris Chester, who was released in June, and traded for Tennessee Titans left guard Andy Levitre.

Freeman, a second-year running back, made his first start in Week 3 and rumbled for 141 yards and three touchdowns as the Falcons beat the Dallas Cowboys, 39-28. Last week, in a 48-21 victory against the Houston Texans, Freeman rushed for 68 yards and three touchdowns.

Redskins running back Chris Thompson, who was a rookie in Shanahan’s final season and played with Freeman at Florida State, marveled at Freeman’s success. Thompson joked he used to trip over his own feet as a freshman for the Seminoles.

Last year, Freeman rushed for 248 yards on 65 carries. This season, he already has rushed for 252 yards on 66 attempts and a league-leading seven touchdowns.

Kyle is a real good OC,” Thompson said. “He adapts to whatever groups of guys he has and he’s good at it. It doesn’t surprise me the success he has. He’s a great offensive coordinator. I’m not sure the difference with what we were doing here two years ago and now, maybe he has more freedom to do whatever.”

The Falcons added a number of former Redskins players this offseason, including wide receivers Leonard Hankerson and Nick Williams and recently released right tackle Tyler Polumbus. A number of former Redskins assistants are on Shanahan’s staff, and Raheem Morris, the Redskins‘ defensive backs coach the last three years, is the co-defensive coordinator.

Shanahan said Thursday the game holds no additional meaning for him, pointing out that he once coached for the Texans, last week’s opponent, as well.

“You’re close with some people because you’ve got some relationships with both some of the players and coaches, and I’m looking forward to seeing some of those guys, whether it’s before the game or after the game,” Shanahan said. “Besides that, it’s not a big deal.”

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