No one is likely to benefit more than receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.
For the first time since coach Mike Smith took over in January 2008, the Falcons are emphasizing the screen pass, an option that was lacking in four years under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
Atlanta hopes the new approach, being installed by new coordinator Dirk Koetter, will give quarterback Matt Ryan more options and keep defenses guessing.
“We’re going to take whatever defenses give us,” Jones said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s good to have that in our game plan, but whatever coach calls we’re going to try to make it work.”
Ryan’s 68 yards passing on screens last season ranked 32nd in the NFL, and he had just 20 attempts. If the Falcons can get the ball more quickly in space to Jones — their fastest receiver — they can force defenses to spread out and limit the blitz.
“I think at times in the past if it didn’t work early we kind of tended to get away from it or didn’t do it at all,” center Todd McClure said. “That was one of the first things when this offensive staff came in. They said that we’re going to be a great screen team.”
When the Falcons did deploy the screen under Mularkey, Ryan usually threw quick passes to Jones or White near the sideline. The problem was that Jones and White had rarely had blockers to clear space, so both receivers had to beat coverages alone.
In Koetter’s scheme, slot receiver Harry Douglas and speedy running back Jacquizz Rodgers will join Jones and White in attacking with screen passes led by a blocking tight end or an offensive tackle.
“There’s different ways we’re executing our blocking schemes on the screens that I think is going to be real beneficial,” said McClure, a 13-year veteran. “As an offensive line, you love to have a screen game that the defensive line has to respect. That way they’re not just pinning their ears back and rushing the quarterback.”
The Falcons believe a diversified passing attack will offer a better chance to win the NFC South for the second time in three years.
Perennial favorite New Orleans will be without coach Sean Payton all season. Tampa Bay is rebuilding under rookie coach Greg Schiano. Carolina, despite the considerable playmaking ability of quarterback Cam Newton, is still overhauling its defense.
Under Smith, Atlanta has gone 43-21 in the regular season, but the Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs, and their last two appearances were an embarrassment.
Last January, the New York Giants shut out Atlanta’s offense, stopping two fourth-and-1 runs, holding the ground game to a 3.0-yard average on 21 attempts and allowing conversions on just four of 14 third-down attempts.
Though Koetter’s offense in Jacksonville ranked last in total offense and yards passing and was 29th in scoring, the Jaguars had a rookie quarterback in Blaine Gabbert and a receiving corps that hardly compared to Atlanta’s, which includes NFL career-leading tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Gabbert, despite his overall struggles, completed 36 of 45 screen attempts. Ryan, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, would surely have as good a chance at succeeding.
Koetter has “been watching film, and he knows how to get the ball into our hands,” White said last week. “He wants to get it to us quick, make people miss and then get after guys.”
For White, the challenge goes beyond improving just one dynamic of the passing attack. He believes the offense will benefit downfield as defenses try to contain Gonzalez and former All-Pro running back Michael Turner.
White, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, last year became the eighth NFL player with five consecutive seasons with at least 80 catches and 1,000 yards receiving, but he thinks Koetter is determined to give others a chance to shine.
“I know that sounds crazy, but we’ve got other guys out there that can play,” White said. “Julio is going to be a big part of the offense this year. Harry is going to do wonders in the slot. We have to maximize our talent and get the ball in everyone’s hands.”