Midway through the season, few can dispute the effectiveness of the Atlanta Falcons’ high-flying offense, the best unit in the league to date. What’s intriguing about Kyle Shanahan’s system in Atlanta however, is his effective utilization of a new trend to help the Falcons’ scoring surge.

The use of three tight end formations (13 personnel) in non short-yardage situations is becoming increasingly popular. The 13-personnel package has the benefit of making the defense force its hand. Should a nickel package line up against this group, the offense can take advantage of the size disparity and run the ball. If the defense stays in base, however, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will attack through the air using some of the following concepts and exploiting a defense focused on stopping the run.

One way Atlanta likes to use this group in the passing game is by emptying the backfield. This first play against the Oakland Raiders finds the Falcons facing a first and 10 on their own 25-yard line. Using 13 personnel, they line up with tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo on the right, with quarterback Matt Ryan in the shotgun. Running back Devonta Freeman is split wide to the right, with Julio Jones split wide to the left and TE Jacob Tamme inside.

Raiders cornerback David Amerson remains outside over Freeman and the Raiders run Cover 4, meaning safety Keith McGill is down in the box perhaps in anticipation of a running play and will need to get back into his zone quickly if the Falcons pass. That’s exactly what Atlanta does, running a mirrored hitch / seam combination. Jones and Freeman run hitch routes on the outside while Tamme and Hooper run seam routes down the field. Toilolo runs a quick in route, looking to occupy the linebackers while serving as a checkdown option for Ryan.

Free safety Reggie Nelson (No. 27) stays right in his zone, taking away the seam route from Tamme. But McGill is slow to drop with Hooper, allowing the rookie TE to break free in the secondary. Ryan hits him in stride.

The width of the formation spreads Oakland’s base defense horizontally before the snap, allowing Atlanta to attack the seams with Tamme and Hooper. Ryan is forced to step up in the pocket because of pressure at the edges, and both tight ends are open for him. He hits Hooper, and Atlanta has a big gain.

Another example of this concept against the Denver Broncos. Atlanta comes out with two tight ends and Jones (No. 11) to the left, and Hooper to the right. The Broncos align in their base 3-4 defense and show a single safety deep.

But prior to the snap Tevin Coleman shifts out toward the right. Linebacker Brandon Marshall (No. 54) follows the RB outside.

When Ryan sees this, he knows the defense is in man coverage. The offense runs a mirrored slant / flat passing concept.

Hooper runs a flat route while Coleman runs the slant. Marshall and Aqib Talib (No. 21) both collapse on the slant, leaving the tight end open.

The offensive personnel keeps Denver in its base formation, and the pre-snap shift indicates to the quarterback the coverage in the secondary. Once more, the offense is able to exploit this for a big play.

Shanahan has two veteran tight ends in Tamme and Toilolo at his disposal, but the last member of this triumvirate is the rookie, Hooper from Stanford University. On multiple occasions this season, Hooper was left wide open on a beautifully designed play by Shanahan that worked so well that it fooled defenses that had seen it on film.

Here, the Falcons face a first-and-10 on their own 39 yard line, and line up in 13 personnel. Hooper and Toilolo are to the right, with Tamme and Jones to the left. The Raiders have their base 4-3 defense in the game using an under front.

The Falcons run a standard boot-action play — at least at the beginning.

Ryan takes the snap and fakes an outside zone run to the left to Coleman. The QB then peels back and rolls to the right. Jones runs a deep crossing route while Tamme runs a shallow drag. Toilolo blocks down at first with the rest of the line, before releasing to the flat. As the play begins, the Raiders seem to have this covered, which you would expect, given the usage of this play around the NFL.

But there is one more receiver about to enter the fray — Hooper.

After executing his blocking assignment, Hooper then runs a wheel route to the backside, and finds that there are no Raiders on that side of the field.

Ryan puts the football on his rookie TE, who makes a catch. Linebacker Ben Heeney recovers well enough to prevent the touchdown, but he cannot prevent the big gain.

Through eight games, Atlanta stands atop the NFC South with a 5-3 record and is in the driver’s seat. Some of that success can be attributed to the creative aspects of the offensive gameplan, including the ability to dictate to the defense when using their 13 personnel package in the passing game.

Mark Schofield graduated from Wesleyan where he was a four-year letter winner as a quarterback and situational wide receiver. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children.