How the Falcons offense changes under Dirk Koetter

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The Atlanta Falcons moved on from offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian this offseason. Despite what Falcons fans would call two years of dismay, Sark produced notable production as the play caller. In 2017 and 2018, the offense ranked inside the top ten in points, total yards, and passing yards per game, but what stands out is the rushing yards per game rank. The Falcons finished 27th in rushing both years which obtrudes into the philosophy that maximizes Matt Ryan’s strengths.

Ryan is at his best when supported by an adequate rushing attack to capitalize on play-action opportunities. During Ryan’s 2016 MVP season, 27% of play-calls were play-action, and they averaged 10.3 yards per attempt. The following season those numbers dropped to 22% and 8.7, respectively. For Dirk Koetter’s offense to be deemed a success, these numbers must correlate more towards 2016 rather than 2017 statistics.

After three years with the Falcons from 2012-2014, Koetter moved on to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers’ fired Lovie Smith during the 2016 season and retained Koetter after his time as interim head coach. Let go after his second full season as Tampa Bay’s coach; he is returning to Atlanta for his second stint. Both Dan Quinn and Koetter want a more balanced offensive attack. Koetter is quoted saying, “… I’ve never met a defensive coach who didn’t say the hardest thing to defend is balance.”

Atlanta’s inability to run the ball last year resulted in critical sentiments of the offensive line. The Falcons addressed their offensive front this offseason signing James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, and drafting two linemen in the first round. Chris Lindstrom, Boston College, and Kaleb McGary, Washington, will add at the very least depth behind aging veterans. Ideally, the two draft picks will sure up the right side next to Alex Mack immediately. Whatever combination is rolled out week one is critical to a successful offense, in both dimensions of the game.

Expect much of the same schematically, as Dan Quinn is standing firm on the style he wants to play. What could be different is the addition of former Falcons’ offensive coordinator and current tight ends coach, Mike Mularkey. When Koetter first took over as OC in Atlanta, he was challenged with merging his vertical Air Coryell attack and the former OC Mike Mularkey’s power attack. Expect a heavy dose of zone schemes with new wrinkles thrown in.

Koetter and Mularkey will collaborate to collectively scheme the offense into favorable situations. Koetter’s challenge of blending his offensive style with that of his predecessor is similar to that of 2012, but the help offered by Mularkey will prove valuable. Mularkey, as a former OC and head coach, will offer different points of view on general offensive philosophies that combined with Koetter’s ideas could be lethal. 

The former Bucs coach is known for his aggressive vertical passing attack. His offensive premise is built on taking shots down the field for explosive plays. These chunk (15-20+ yards) plays come mostly from either a play-action or a standard seven-step quarterback drop. Both of which are feasible when the offensive line is decent; capable blocking in the run game and passing situations are critical for maximum effectiveness.

Defenses must respect an offense that can successfully run the ball, which results in leaving bigger, slower bodied defenders on the field to combat the run. Doing so allows for favorable matchups on offense, i.e., Austin Hooper against a slower linebacker. A seven-step drop demands more time for the receivers to run naturally longer routes, which in turn puts more stress on linemen to hold their blocks. These situations will not exclusively represent the offensive strategy but will be notoriously mentioned by fans and media if they cannot be executed regularly.

Below is an example of an often successful Koetter play from Tampa Bay. This play design is set up by a ZBS (zone blocking scheme) where the running back has the option to bounce it outside the tight end, in between the tackle and tight end, or a potential cutback lane due to defensive overpursuit. ZBS takes away offensive lineman confusion due to shifting defenses and instead requires lineman to block an area or a “zone.” After effectively running this double tights zone, Koetter will call this tight end throwback. Matt Ryan will fake the handoff and bootleg out, drawing the safeties down with his eyes on the crossing routes (2 & 3), while Austin Hooper (1) leaks out behind those crossing routes. This sets up a significant gain and is proven to be fruitful in points. OJ Howard scored three touchdowns on this play alone.

dirk koetter

Matt Ryan’s familiarity with Dirk Koetter should allow for a full, rapid understanding of offensive schemes. Under Koetter, Ryan posted several single-season career and franchise records including, passing yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage. Wide receiver Julio Jones also experienced a breakout year in 2012, setting career-bests – at the time – in receptions (79), receiving yards (1,198) and touchdowns (10) in only his second season. Fans can expect Ryan’s usual passing yards and Jones’ gaudy receiving yards but can also be excited about another big year from Devonta Freeman and a break out year for Ito Smith.

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