|Josh D. Weiss/US Presswire|
|Overshadowed by bigger names on the roster, slot receiver Harry Douglas will play a pivotal role for Atlanta in 2011.|
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A few weeks ago at the American Century Celebrity Golf Tournament, I sat with Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for a few minutes and, at one point, asked him which of his teammates is lying in the weeds, set to breakout.
"Harry Douglas," he said without hesitation.
The slot wide receiver came into the league with Ryan in 2008 but a major knee injury that resulted in a lost 2009 season and slow recovery in 2010 hasn't allowed him to keep pace with Ryan's ascent. Although Douglas has just 45 receptions in the two seasons he's played, the potential for big things is there.
Now that Douglas's healthy, he's due. And since Ryan will be the one controlling whether Douglas will be getting opportunities, it would be unwise to doubt the quarterback's prediction.
"Being healthy, I'm happy I can go out and play and not think about anything," said Douglas, who had a 20-yard touchdown catch in Atlanta's loss to Miami in Friday's preseason opener. "Having Julio [Jones] on one side, Roddy [White] on the other, Tony [Gonzalez] on the inside and Mike Turner in the backfield and Matt at quarterback, is a big positive for me."
Douglas could be like a hyena getting plenty of good eats after the ravenous lions have had their fill. White (115 catches in 2010) and Gonzalez (70 receptions) are receiving options one and two. The rookie Jones, who's already assumed the No. 2 wideout role and was showcased against the Dolphins, is going to be force fed the ball because of his explosiveness. Turner is the bell-cow rusher whose success sets up the play-action game.
Then comes Douglas -- at least in the schematic pecking order. The 6-foot, 183-pounder is the shifty slot receiver with the speed to get downfield and the elusiveness to be a tough cover for nickel backs and safeties in the intermediate range. He rarely will draw double coverage, not because he's unworthy, but because White, Jones and Gonzalez will be priorities.
"The play-calling is going to be aggressive," White said. "We're going to try and get the ball down the field and get some explosive plays. We're going to try to look for a lot of mismatches. Wherever those mismatches are, that's where we're going. A lot of times, it's going to be Harry and he's going to have to dominate games. That's going to help all of us.
"Teams can't guard all of us. We just have to capitalize on those mismatches and go after people."
The Falcons' mission this offseason was to get more explosive, hence the decision to trade several draft picks to move up 21 spots in the draft to select Jones sixth overall. So far, that gamble looks right on target. Jones (6-3, 220) has shown the speed, toughness and competitiveness to be as problematic for defenses as White. The past few seasons, White has been the only consistent big-play threat for Atlanta and that simply wasn't enough.
The Falcons' ball control style has been effective, but teams like the Saints and Packers -- the past two Super Bowl champs -- can score on one play or drive it down the field on 13 plays. The quick-strike threat makes it all possible.
To some degree, Atlanta is modeling itself after the last three NFC Super Bowl teams -- Arizona, New Orleans and Green Bay. Though the Falcons don't have the defense of the Packers, the unit is hoping to be opportunistic, enough, like the Saints and Cardinals were. By signing Ray Edwards to pair on the defensive line with John Abraham, the Falcons are hoping to create enough pressure on the quarterback for ballhawks Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to take advantage.
Meanwhile, by stockpiling multiple offensive threats, the Falcons can become unpredictable and win plays simply by personnel packages and execution -- the same way they were victimized by the Packers in the playoffs last season.
Green Bay had four receivers with at least four catches in its divisional-round blowout of Atlanta, three having plays of at least 24 yards. White's longest catch was 12 yards in that game because the Packers denied him the long ball, in large part because they didn't fear the other options. Douglas, who wasn't himself yet after the knee injury, had just one catch for two yards.
Within moments after the 48-21 beatdown, the Falcons began talking about the need to be more explosive.
"One thing the Packers did was they spread us out and found the mismatches," Douglas said. "Some nights we're going to have to do that."
Added White: "We've got those caliber players. We're so explosive. So many of us can run and make people miss. We've got to get the ball in our hands, just like they do, on shorter routes and turn them into 30-yard gains. That's going to be a big key to our success this year -- getting the dump routes, breaking those tackles and getting the ball up field."
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89