In case you were wondering what it is about this Atlanta Falcons offense that’s driving its success: it’s the screen pass.
The Falcons rank fifth in the league, scoring 28.7 points per game, and look absolutely unstoppable at times. Quarterback Matt Ryan is playing at an MVP-type level, he has Pro Bowl-caliber targets in Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, and the offense has the depth to get multiple players involved—seven players have caught touchdown passes in 2012.
All these options, however, we’re available to this team last season, and it’s not just growth and the maturation process that’s benefited the Falcons and sparked this meteoric rise.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter brought with him from Jacksonville a unique play-calling philosophy that’s been a perfect glass-slipper fit for Ryan and the Falcons' offense. And yes, this team could be getting dressed for the Super Bowl ball if Koetter can keep this momentum.
Koetter helped install a more vertical look to this offense, and has the historically run-first Falcons thinking pass. But it’s been his use of the screen pass that’s been the biggest change in Atlanta.
Last season, Atlanta was 16-of-20 on screen passes for 68 yards and zero scores. It was an unused portion of the play book, and rightfully so because the team looked inept at times trying to run the play.
All that’s changed in 2012, the proof is in the statistics from Sunday’s win in Philadelphia. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Ryan was 9-of-10 against the Eagles on screen passes for 81 yards and a touchdown.
In one game, Ryan threw 10 screen passes—half the amount he tried all last season. And this year, he’s using the screen as a weapon.
When you use a play as much as the Falcons have used the screen pass this year, it’s because the play is working. Atlanta’s found multiple ways to utilize the play and many ways to score with it.
First Quarter, 0:38: Atlanta 7, Philadelphia 0
With the quarter winding down and the Falcons already up a score, Ryan lines his team up from the three-yard line in 11 Personnel (one running back and one tight end). Tony Gonzalez, Drew Davis and Roddy White all run deep routes into the end zone while Julio Jones, who came in motion to line up in the backfield, runs out into the flat.
Jason Snelling, who lined up at the 10-yard line, crosses paths with defensive end Brandon Graham, setting up the quick screen.
Ryan pushed the ball to Snelling who practically walked into the end zone with Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo blocking out front.
Not only are the Falcons using the screen this year to score (something that didn’t happen last year) but Ryan is able to get players involved in the game that don’t normally contribute on scoring plays.
Snelling has the best hands of anyone in the Falcons' backfield and is only two years removed from catching 44 passes in 2010.
Second Quarter, 0:40: Atlanta 21, Philadelphia 7
The Falcons are, once again, in 11 Personnel with Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield. The first half is coming to a close and Atlanta is going to run this basic screen pass to Rodgers not necessarily to bust open a big play, but to keep the Philadelphia defensive line from getting into a rhythm.
To keep the Eagles from being able to blindly send pressure at Ryan on a consistent basis, this screen was called. Three Eagles were in the backfield immediately and Ryan’s screen floated to Rodgers.
The play gained just two yards but, more importantly, worked to keep Todd Bowles from being able to be aggressive up front. By making Bowles aware that Atlanta could run the screen from anywhere at any time, Philadelphia’s defensive line had to dial down the aggression and take counter-measures against the screen.
This strategy may have given Ryan just a split second longer to sit in the pocket from that point forward.
Third Quarter, 10:14: Atlanta 24, Philadelphia 10
When Atlanta uses Jones in the screen game, it’s possibly one of the more exciting plays in the book. Not just because Jones has elite athleticism and can break a play from anywhere, but because it allows White to become the aggressor and lay a hit on a defender (something he enjoys).
From 11 Personnel, Atlanta lines Jones out wide left and White just inside him. White takes a step forward and then breaks outside to pick the defender covering Jones.
Since the play is within one yard of the line of scrimmage, this is a legal pick. Since it happens quickly, not only is the man covering Jones slowed, but White’s defender should be lost because his momentum is taking him away from Jones.
The pick also gives McClure and Justin Blalock time to release from the line and get out to help block for Jones.
The play gained 37 yards because McClure and Blalock did an excellent job of blocking downfield, and Jones was elusive enough to break two tackles before being caught from behind.
The screen pass has become an extremely valuable weapon for the Falcons. Because Ryan can call this play from anywhere on the field to accomplish any number of goals (slow pressure, gain big yards, getting more players involved), Atlanta will surely continue to utilize the play.
At least until someone finds a way to stop it.