BEFORE A practice at training camp in Flowery Branch, Ga., new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter pondered a statistic that might explain why the Falcons would want to breathe new life into their offense. Last season, the numbers say, big, speedy Julio Jones was 38th in the NFL in average depth of passing target—meaning 37 receivers were targeted farther past the line of scrimmage than Jones. And though the rookie did make the most of his chances, averaging 17.8 yards per reception, wouldn't it make sense for Matt Ryan to air out a couple more deep shots to him each game? Koetter, who spent the last five seasons as the Jaguars' offensive coordinator, took in the information, said the Falcons offense seemed pretty explosive to him and went back to work.
That afternoon the Falcons had a spirited 15-minute, 11-on-11 drill at the end of practice. The first throw, from Ryan to Jones, was a deep out along the left sideline; gain of about 35. A few minutes later Jones took a cornerback one-on-one deep to the post, and Ryan led him with a perfect 65-yard rainbow.
As Koetter left the practice field, he said with a grin, "I don't think Julio's going to be 38th in that stat this year."
Atlanta is the second-winningest team in the NFC over the past four seasons—the four seasons in which Ryan's been the quarterback. The Falcons scored more points last year (25.1 per game) than 25 other teams, but they weren't happy with the development of the offense, particularly its lack of imagination; even if offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey hadn't gotten the Jaguars' coaching job, Atlanta might have replaced him. It's not just the 0--3 playoff record since 2008, when Mike Smith took over and handed the reins to Ryan, that year's No. 3 pick. It's not just the anemic 24--2 wild-card loss to the Giants last January. It's not a single game or a single thing. The Falcons analyzed their attack and saw two elements missing. One was a screen-passing game: Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta's version of Darren Sproles, caught just one screen as a rookie last season, and Atlanta's coaches think the 5'6", 196-pound back can be deadly if he gets the ball in space more.
The second element was the deep ball. When the Falcons traded five draft picks to move up 21 spots and take Jones out of Alabama last year, they envisioned him stretching the defense to make veteran Roddy White a greater intermediate and deep threat. While White was his usual productive self, with 100 receptions, and Jones did have an impact, Atlanta wants more out of Jones than 54 catches in 13 games. "They can use me however they want, and whatever way's best for the offense," Jones says. "But I have a lot of confidence in my ability to get deep."
Judging by the Falcons' practices, they're going to use Rodgers and Jones more this year—a lot more. Last season that pair, the team's most explosive playmakers outside of White, touched the ball on 138 out of 1,073 offensive plays (12.9%). Getting Rodgers and Jones more touches will almost certainly lift the Falcons from 14th in the league in average yards per play (5.6).
The veterans are fed up with the playoff failures—the 27-point slaughter by the Packers two years ago, the feeble offensive performance in the Meadowlands last season. "I was just sick walking off the field in that [Giants] game," says veteran defensive end John Abraham. "A lot of guys were. You can still feel the disappointment around here." Much as it was for the crosstown Braves in the '90s, making the playoffs isn't enough anymore for the Falcons or their followers. They've got to do something when they get there, or Ryan risks joining the line of good quarterbacks who couldn't deliver when it mattered most.
To win in the postseason the Falcons will practice being more explosive in the regular season. And for that reason, Koetter's play-calling will be under close scrutiny from the opening snap in Kansas City on Sept. 9. You can almost hear him whispering to Jones: Go deep, young man. Go deep.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 10
(N) New acquisition
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 10--6
9 at Kansas City
17 Denver (Mon)
23 at San Diego
7 at Washington
28 at Philadelphia
11 at New Orleans
25 at Tampa Bay
29 New Orleans (Thu)
9 at Carolina
16 New York Giants
22 at Detroit (Sat)
30 Tampa Bay
You should see the change in the Falcons' pass defense this year with the addition of Samuel, who'd worn out his welcome, and his cap-usefulness, in Philly. You'll definitely be able to hear him. Samuel, 31 and entering his 10th season, is probably the loudest player on any NFL practice field. During one drill last month Samuel played tight coverage on his receiver, making Matt Ryan hold on to the ball for an extra second. The play was stopped, a victory for the defense. "Coverage sack! Coverage sack!" Samuel screamed. "I do it all."
Atlanta will take the mouth if the coverage follows. Samuel was one of the best coverage corners in the league in 2011, according to ProFootballFocus.com, allowing only 47.5% of passes thrown to his receiver in man coverage to be completed. He'll join Brent Grimes (44.6%) to form one of the stingiest corner tandems in the NFL. "We needed an upgrade there," said G.M. Thomas Dimitroff, "and to be able to do it for a seventh-round pick was something we couldn't pass up. Asante's edgy, and we needed that on our defense." Already, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, empowered by coach Mike Smith to become the leader of the D, has been more vocal. "I feed off Asante," Weatherspoon says. Whatever works.
Average yards after the catch by receiver Julio Jones as a rookie in 2011, highest in the league among all players with at least 50 receptions.
Yards allowed by cornerback Brent Grimes for every play he was in coverage (minimum: 200 snaps), an NFL low. Second: new Falcon Asante Samuel (0.65).
Missed tackles forced in 2011 by 5'10", 247-pound running back Michael Turner, more than any other player in the league.
KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES (JONES)
Look for Jones, who topped all NFC rookies in yards per catch in 2011, to go even deeper this season.
JIM MAHONEY/AP (SAMUEL)