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Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons embrace quick-strike passing game

The end to the means is a lot simpler than expected.

The explosive plays the Atlanta Falcons have sought for two seasons are coming via screens and short, quick passes, not so much via the deep ball -- although that is a constant threat. The added benefit to quickly getting the ball in the hands of dynamic wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White? A shaky offensive line isn't exposed -- therefore, neither is quarterback Matt Ryan.

"The screen game helps us out a bunch and takes a lot of pressure off us guys up front," center Todd McClure said.

The Falcons' short passing game was on display during the preseason and was a strong element in Atlanta's 40-24 season-opening victory over Kansas City. Jones' 14-yard touchdown came on a bubble screen that was so perfectly executed that the second-year wideout -- who might supplant White as Atlanta's No. 1 receiving option -- scored untouched.

The emphasis on the screen game was part of the game plan added by new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who came from Jacksonville after former Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left Atlanta to become the Jaguars' head coach. As part of his offensive installation, Koetter also gave Ryan freedom to audible into screen plays if he notices favorable matchups.

"Matt has the freedom to check into that at the line of scrimmage," McClure said. "There are certain situations where Matt has complete control over what's going on. There are other situations where he's got a package he can check to. There are five or six plays to choose from based off what they give us.

"He also has the freedom where, if he sees a route covered, he's got the ability to check us into protections to get it blocked or check to the screen."

On Jones' aforementioned touchdown, Ryan went through the machinations of signaling to an alternative play at the line of scrimmage. It was so smooth and easy that it's clear the nuances of the passing game are ingrained. Executing is second-nature now. That's a reason why the offense looks so well-oiled.

Ryan is locked in, McClure said. The quarterback and the rest of the team are tired of failing in January. The Falcons have been bumped from the postseason in their first playoff game three times on Ryan's watch, with the most recent loss being a 24-2 embarrassment to the New York Giants eight months ago. If they fall short again, there could be a lot more changes than just to the passing game.

On the first day of offseason workouts, head coach Mike Smith conveyed the message that winning the regular season isn't enough:

"Smitty made it clear. There was no reason to beat around the bush," McClure said. "We have to get [to the playoffs] and win some games."

With White and Jones being such dangerous threats, Koetter, with the blessing of Smith, came to Atlanta this summer with the goal of using the pass to set up the run -- a change for the run-first Falcons. The receivers were viewed as more favorable chain movers than 30-year-old running back Michael Turner, whose role, thus far, has been reduced.

Turner won't be drastically curtailed because he is still productive and can help pull opposing safeties into the "box," which opens up passing lanes. McClure said the running game would be more of a factor in Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos. Although Atlanta ran it just 23 times against the Chiefs, the Falcons will look to pull Broncos safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, creating single-high safety situations.

"We've got to be able to run the ball," McClure said. "But with the athletes we have on the edge, we've got to pass it more. It's something you have to do to win games. We have to have a run game to make those passes big."

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Getting the ball out of Ryan's hands also keeps the franchise quarterback out of harm's way. He was sacked a career-high 26 times last season and felt uncomfortable in the pocket far more frequently because the offensive line couldn't hold up.

The Falcons didn't do anything radical to change its offensive personnel in the offseason. Instead, it changed how it approached the passing game, by getting things going before the defense can react.

More teams are trying to have quarterbacks unload the ball quickly to spare hits and pressure. Today's pass rushers are too athletic to keep at bay, McClure said, so offenses across the league look to get them chasing receivers instead of quarterbacks.

"All O-linemen love that, when you got a quarterback that gets the ball out of his hands," McClure said. "That's one thing about Matt: He gets the ball out of his hands before receivers break, and that makes offensive line look good.

"A quarterback that holds on to the ball makes guys up front look bad. We don't like looking bad."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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