The Atlanta Falcons have been on the verge of title contention over the past few seasons, but an underachieving offense has kept them from getting over the hump. However, the arrival of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will not only make the unit more explosive, but also could make the Falcons' offense the best in the NFC.
Here are five reasons why:
Ryan is on the verge of joining the ranks of the elite, but the fifth-year quarterback needs to take his game up a notch to help the Falcons seriously contend for a championship. Although he is coming off the best season of his career -- completing 61.3 percent of his passes for 4,177 pass yards with 29 touchdowns and 12 interceptions -- the Falcons' offense routinely underperformed in matchups with the league's elite. During the regular season in 2011, the Falcons averaged only 17.2 points per game against playoff teams. And of course, they failed to score an offensive point in a 24-2 drubbing by the New York Giants in the NFC wild-card round. Ryan contributed to the team's offensive woes by tossing seven interceptions in those contests, only completing over 60 percent of his passes in one of those games. Although he isn't solely responsible for the Falcons' offensive ineptitude, Ryan must shoulder the bulk of the criticism based on his status as the team's franchise quarterback.
However, the arrival of Koetter in Atlanta should help Ryan take his game to another level. Just look at the success of David Garrard in 2007 -- Koetter's first season in Jacksonville -- as an example of how Ryan's game can improve drastically under his new offensive coordinator. Garrard, a career backup at that point, completed 64 percent of his passes, while amassing a 102.2 passer rating with an impressive 18-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
To help Ryan maximize his talents, Koetter certainly will retain some of the concepts that worked well last season. That will likely included a host of play-action passes from two-back sets to capitalize on Ryan's deft ball handling and pinpoint accuracy on throws inside the numbers. Koetter also will incorporate some spread and empty formations to make it easy for Ryan to identify coverage and exploit vulnerable areas down the field -- like so:
In addition, the Falcons will continue to flirt with a no-huddle offense to provide Ryan with the freedom to attack the defense from the line of scrimmage. When the quickened tempo is combined with a variety of spread and empty formations, the Falcons' offense will pose serious issues for opponents in 2012.
The Falcons' passing game has been viewed as a vertical attack in the past, but that might change a bit under Koetter. He believes in maximizing the talents of his top playmakers, and that could lead Atlanta to use more quick passes and crossing routes to take advantage of the superb running skills of White and Jones. For instance, White excels at running the "Bang-8" (skinny post) and "Dig" routes, so Koetter will likely put him in a position to run in-breaking routes from an outside alignment. This not only puts White in a comfortable position, but it gets him the ball over the middle with a full head of steam, making it difficult for defenders to bring him down after the catch.
Jones has shown the ability to play down the field on vertical routes, but he has also flashed spectacular skills as a catch-and-run playmaker. Jones possesses the size and speed to run through arm tackles, and a knack for weaving through traffic makes him dangerous when gets the ball in the open field. Last season, Jones turned a pair of slant routes into touchdowns of 75-plus yards, and added another two scores on short crossing routes. That's why Koetter will make Jones the primary threat on quick passes to take advantage of his impressive running skills.
The top offensive coordinators in the NFL excel at getting the ball to their playmakers in positions where they can make things happen. Koetter will adhere to that premise by getting the ball to White and Jones on the move.
When the Falcons drafted Rodgers a season ago, he was viewed as an explosive change-of-pace back capable of delivering big plays as a runner/receiver. He displayed some of those skills as a rookie, amassing 393 total yards from scrimmage on 78 touches with two touchdowns.
Koetter's arrival will lead to a bigger role for Rodgers in his second season. The clever offensive architect effectively utilized a two-back rotation in Jacksonville with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, and he can implement a similar strategy in Atlanta with Michael Turner and Rodgers. Turner can continue to carry the load as the feature runner in the backfield, receiving the majority of his touches on inside runs directed between the tackles. He will act as the sledgehammer, wearing down the defense with his hard-charging runs between the tackles.
Rodgers, on the other hand, will bring an explosive element to the running game with his ability to get to the perimeter on off-tackle plays. Given his quickness, burst and elusiveness, he is capable of generating the big runs that have been lacking in Atlanta's running game. Rodgers will also provide Ryan with a dangerous weapon to target on passing plays. He is a crafty route runner with the quickness to separate from defenders in space, and Koetter could exploit those skills by creating favorable matchups within the Falcons' spread formations. In looking at the video just above, the Falcons were able to connect with Rodgers on a throwback pass following a bootleg fake.
4. The screen pass will become a priority in the game plan.
One of the tactics utilized by creative offensive coordinators to offset heavy blitz pressure is the screen game. Koetter has been a big proponent of screens in the past. During his tenures at Boise State and Arizona State, he routinely used an assortment of screens to get the ball into the hands of the top playmakers on the perimeter. He continued to use the strategy successfully in Jacksonville with Jones-Drew in the backfield.
In Atlanta, he inherits a talented cast of playmakers that will allow him to expand his screen package to include an assortment of bubble and slip screens to wide receivers in spread formations. This will allow Harry Douglas, White and Jones to get the ball quickly on the perimeter with a convoy of blockers in front to lead the way. Given the superb running skills of the aforementioned trio, these quick passes could yield big results against defenses stretched horizontally by spread formations.
Koetter will also certainly incorporate a variety of two-back slow screens to Turner and Rodgers following run fakes. This will effectively counter the eight-man fronts utilized by defenses to slow down the Falcons' potent running game. In addition, the increased use of the screen game will help the Falcons' pass protection by preventing opponents from attacking the pocket with aggressive blitzes designed to harass Ryan. With more defenses intent on pressuring quarterbacks to disrupt the timing of the passing game, Koetter's affinity for the screen pass will add another dimension to the Falcons' offense.
Pat Hill takes over as the Falcons' offensive line coach following a 15-year stint as the head coach at Fresno State, and his presence will certainly change the mentality of the offensive line. Hill built an outstanding football program at Fresno State by emphasizing discipline, toughness and physicality. As a scout, I've witnessed the hard-hitting practices conducted under Hill's watch, and the fact that his program consistently produced pro players is a testament to the effectiveness of the blue-collar mentality fostered in that environment.
For the Falcons, Hill's mentality and attention to detail will help the offensive line develop the kind of toughness needed to achieve postseason success. He will demand that the Falcons' front-line blockers play with outstanding effort from snap to whistle, and their respective games will be deeply rooted in the fundamentals. This will help the Falcons develop a "bully" mentality at the point of attack, which ultimately results in the line wearing down the opponent with persistent toughness and physicality.
In breaking down the key elements of the Falcons' playoff loss to the New York Giants, it was the inability of the offense to convert on a pair of fourth-and-short situations that led to the team's demise. (Relive both plays here and here.) On both plays, the offensive line failed to generate enough push for Ryan to gain a yard on a quarterback sneak, and the failures highlighted the Falcons' lack of toughness up front. The arrival of Hill should rectify that problem and allow the Falcons to pound opponents with a smash-mouth ground attack.