Most NFL teams use Week 3 of the preseason as a dress rehearsal for what games during the regular season will actually look like.
Friday’s 23-6 win over the Miami Dolphins was exactly that—a balanced Atlanta Falcons offensive attack that spread the ball around and chugged away at the clock while an improved defense used a new, aggressive style to slow opponents down and hand the ball back to Atlanta’s offense with good field position.
During a second-half interview—well after he had replaced his helmet with a Falcons cap on the sideline—quarterback Matt Ryan told Fox sideline reporter Laura Okmin that Atlanta’s offense would be doing its job when it spread the ball around to a number of different people, making it difficult for defenses to game-plan for the Falcons.
Ryan passed the football to seven different receivers during his two-and-a-half quarters of play, and more important, the Falcons’ run-pass split came back down to a much more balanced attack.
During Atlanta’s first two preseason games the Falcons threw the ball 100 times while running it just 39. Looking at Ryan’s time on the field, he threw just 34 times while the team ran 14 times.
Should Atlanta's offense throw the ball more frequently as in preseason Games 1 and 2 or show a more balanced attack as in Game 3?
That skewed-towards-the-pass play-calling was atypical of Falcons offenses of the past. In 2011 Atlanta threw the ball, on average, 1.4 times for every time it ran the ball. In 2010 the Falcons passed 1.25 times for every run.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter promised a more vertical attack in 2012, but a pass-run split of 2.5 passes for every run—Atlanta’s tendencies through two preseason games—seemed to be taking Atlanta’s newfound love of airing it out to the extreme.
Friday’s game plan looked much more realistic.
Atlanta threw the ball 36 times against the Dolphins and pounded it on the ground 27 times. That 1.3 pass-to-run ratio is much more sustainable throughout the regular season and still gives the Falcons room to spread it around and confuse defenses.
While members of Falcons Nation expect this Koetter-created offense to soar with bombs aplenty and a frenzied passing attack, the real attraction Koetter brings to this offense isn’t more frequent passing, but more strategic passing.
Sure, Ryan will air it out a bit more in 2012—proof came in his multiple attempts to connect deep with receivers, including two specific plays of note. Ryan hit Julio Jones for 49 yards late in the first half and then came back in the second half and connected with Roddy White on a 20-yard touchdown pass.
The timing was massively off on Ryan’s deep ball to Jones—the success of the play coming from Jones being able to come back to get the pass. Ryan greatly under-threw Jones, who had two men on him. Jones knew where the ball was while his defenders did not, and he cut back just in time.
Ryan’s touchdown pass in the third quarter to White was different, a beautifully timed connection that came from hours on the practice field and hundreds of reps between the duo.
Friday showed that the Falcons will throw deep, but Ryan still hasn’t mastered hitting targets on extremely deep routes.
The real bonus Koetter brings to the table is in Atlanta’s new screen game. Whether throwing a designed screen or hitting Michael Turner or Jacquizz Rodgers in the flat, Ryan is now much more comfortable dumping it short and letting his running back flourish as a receiver.
Turner caught a 20-yard pass that led to Atlanta’s first field goal and then an 11-yard screen late in second quarter that led to Atlanta’s third field goal.
Ryan’s new affinity for the screen play does more than just give him a way to get his running backs involved in the passing attack. Being able to use the screen effectively will help keep an opposing secondary honest. If there is a real threat of Ryan dumping the ball off short, defensive backs cannot sit back and prey on the deep route.
This is the beauty of Koetter’s new offense. The screen pass—a play largely forgotten in Atlanta over the past few seasons—will open the door for Ryan to go vertical, while at the same time Koetter’s new vertical scheme will keep defenses pushed back so a screen pass can be more effective.
Koetter’s slight changes to the Falcons game plan are working wonders through three preseason games. Ryan is 45-for-60 with 549 yards and three touchdowns in preseason games.
But look at Friday’s pass-run balance against Miami as Atlanta’s true feel to what its offense will look like. When the Falcons are balanced—both in regard to the pass-run balance and the deep route-screen balance—they can do special things on offense.