Steve Sarkisian does not seem to be planning on changing much to the Falcons’ record-breaking offense in his first year taking over for Kyle Shanahan. But that does not mean he is not focusing on incremental improvements in all areas. He said that recently in an interview with ESPN.com, and one area the Falcons will be looking for major improvements in is their red zone offense.
Atlanta finished 9th in the NFL in red zone conversions last year and were 8th in converting those trips into touchdowns, which for an average offense would be quite impressive, but considering the Falcons were at or near the top of the league in every statistical category, they could see much better results in 2017. One way Sarkisian talked about improving in this area is by targeting Julio Jones more, which is just simply genius, right? The Falcons only targeted Jones eight times in the red zone, which is criminally low for a player of his caliber.
Now much of this did have to do with the kind of attention Jones received in the red zone. Kyle Shanahan was a master of using Jones as the ultimate decoy, which often led to receivers standing wide-open in the end zone for easy touchdowns. Jones may have only had those eight red zone targets, but that does not show near the amount of value he provided in such situations.
Regardless, that number should and will see a significant rise in 2017. “… When you have a player like Julio, it’s making sure we maximize his opportunities because there is so much double-coverage, there are so many unique coverages that roll his way that when we don’t get that, let’s make sure he’s one of the primary receivers on that play because it is such a tough matchup for anybody one on one,” Sarkisian told ESPN.com. This statement also shows that aggressive nature, that Dan Quinn stated he wanted to keep when Kyle Shanahan headed west for San Francisco. The Falcons wants to put as much pressure on opposing defenses as possible, and nobody does that better than Julio Jones.
While this all may seem like a giant “Nothingburger”, as the average person could tell you focusing on getting Julio Jones the ball more is a good idea, there is reason to believe Sarkisian may be able to increase Jones’ targets significantly and in a productive manner. Last year’s Alabama team was loaded on defense, but did not have the same type of consistent offense they have had in previous seasons. Kiffin’s mojo may have been lacking a little, which ultimately led to his dismissal from the team prior to the National Championship Game versus Clemson. Sarkisian replaced Kiffin as the offensive coordinator for that thrilling matchup, and for the first time all season, O.J. Howard, the NCAA’s best tight-end, was a significant part in the offense.
Like with Jones, it may seem obvious for an offensive coordinator to continuously target Howard. After all, he is a 6’6″, 250-pound phenom that ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at the combine, yet Kiffin had trouble all season getting the ball to Howard. In the National Championship game, Howard caught 4 balls for 106 yards and a touchdown. It was the first time all season that Howard caught for over 100 yards (His previous high was season-high was 77).
It also included this little gem, a perfectly drawn up play that led to a 68-yard TD pass to O.J Howard.
Obviously, the sample size is minuscule, but Sarkisian has been a terrific offensive coordinator for a long time, and a lot of that comes from ability to get his most talented players as involved as possible. The Falcons have all the weapons to be even better than they were last year on offense, leaving it up to Sarkisian to continue to find ways for this team to improve.