The 2008 Atlanta Falcons had a breakout season on offense. The team finished sixth in the NFL in total yards, averaging 361 per game. Running back Michael Turner gained 1,699 yards and scored a franchise-record 17 touchdowns. Wideout Roddy White made the Pro Bowl after finishing fourth in the NFL in receiving yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan looked like a seasoned veteran most of his rookie year.
Overall, the offense looked good under first-year coordinator Mike Mularkey. While the former Bills head coach earned the nickname "Inspector Gadget" for his tendency to run trick plays, the 2008 Falcons' were a no-frills team that punished opponents.
After finishing second in the league in rushing, it would be easy to list five running plays as the Falcons' most effective. But, in reality, it took a shrewd mix of run and pass to take the Dirty Birds to the playoffs. The following break down and video highlights should explain the most successful parts of Atlanta's playbook.
1. Michael Turner Power "Off Tackle Left"\"Counter Right"
Running Michael Turner "off tackle left" may have been the Falcons' most effective play all season. The play was run out of an I-formation with fullback Ovie Mughelli as the lead blocker. Atlanta sometimes ran the play out of the normal personnel package, but added multiple tight ends for this touchdown play against the Cardinals in the NFC Playoffs. Running off tackle fits Turner well, because he gets isolated on the outside against a linebacker or defensive back that can't tackle him without help.
Gaining yards by running "off tackle left" was important because it opened up the possibility of counters and cut backs to the right. The Falcons used "counter right" in the red zone to punch home a nine-yard touchdown against the Rams in Week 17. When Atlanta called "off tackle left" in Week 14 against the Saints, Turner cut back to the right, against the flow of play, and was able to walk into the end zone.
2. Michael Turner Dive
In short-yardage situations, Atlanta used Turner out of the I-formation on power runs up the middle. The power dive calls for the offensive line to double team both defensive tackles and relies on Turner running over any linebackers that reach him. It worked repeatedly throughout the season, and created a crucial touchdown against one of the best defensive units in the league, Minnesota.
The Falcons also used the interior run as a change of pace on passing downs. In this example from the Buccaneers game, the Falcons put three wide receivers on the field and sent the slot man in motion, before handing it to Turner up the middle for a 22-yard gain. In this instance, Turner's speed, not his size, made the play possible.
3. Deep Post
Turner's success on the ground opened up space for the passing game. Opposing defenses regularly put a safety in the box near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Upon seeing this shift, quarterback Ryan was able to take advantage of the Lions' secondary for a touchdown with his first pass in the NFL.
The Falcons also used play-action to take advantage of the extra safety creeping toward the line. In the Rams game, wide receiver Michael Jenkins was able to make a 41-yard catch after Ryan faked a hand-off to the right. The play-action worked so well that Jenkins was several yards behind the defense. Had Ryan been able to get the ball off sooner, it would have been an easy touchdown.
The success of the post route was not completely dependent on the threat of the run. During a road game in Philadelphia, Ryan showed his ability to throw the post route against two deep safeties. On 3rd-and-long, he connected with Roddy White running the post for a 55-yard touchdown.
4. Is NOT the "Deep Out"
Before I started working on this article, I thought the deep out would be one of the Falcons' mainstays. However, despite this beautiful pass to set up the win against the Bears...The evidence just isn't there. I watch hours of film, and the Falcons simply had more effective plays in the passing game (i.e. No.4).
4. Fly, Fade, Hitch and Go
The fly, fade, and hitch-and-go were all more effective than the "deep out" for the Dirty Birds in 2008. From the I-formation, the threat of the running game allowed Atlanta's wide receivers to beat single coverage down the sideline repeatedly. These deep sideline routes became even more effective as Ryan showed the deep touch that made him the first quarterback taken in the 2008 draft. The rookie gunslinger also showed an ability to make deep sideline passes when facing two deep safeties, using a quick pump fake on this hitch-and-go route against division rival Carolina.
5. Field-Goal Unit
Last, but not least, is the field-goal unit. To be honest, the kicking game was the most effective part of the offense in 2008. Despite Michael Turner's 17 touchdowns, kicker Jason Elam lead Atlanta in scoring. With 29 field goals and 42 extra points Elam scored 129 points, more than 30 percent of the team's 391 point total.
The Georgia native not only scored almost a third of the Falcon's total points, he was efficient doing it. His 94-percent success rate was second in the NFL, and he only missed one kick inside 50 yards all season. Plus, Elam put the Falcons over the top in several close games; including five field goals and this amazing game winner in Week Six against the Bears.
Expect to see more of the same effective plays in 2009; all of the coaches and all of the offensive starters will be back. There will be one major difference though. If Matt Ryan managed to throw touchdowns with Justin Peelle as a Tight End...imagine what he's going to do with Tony Gonzalez.