Falcons hunting big plays as new offense begins to take form
ATLANTA -- Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan greets visitors with a smile and a handshake. He looks them in their eyes, asks how they're doing and waits for the answer before speaking again. If there is an impolite bone in his body, it doesn't show up in X-rays, which is why everyone in the interview room after Sunday's roller-coaster 35-31 victory over Eagles knew there was no chance of him stirring the pot when asked about the team's play-calling.
Trailing by 10 to start the fourth quarter, the Falcons went to their hurry-up offense and handed the play-calling duties to Ryan. Suddenly an offense that was rhythmless for the most of three quarters was as precise as a marching band. The Falcons went 80 yards to cut the deficit to three. Then they went 80 yards again to take the lead.
One of the first questions afterward was whether Ryan should take over play-calling duties from coordinator Mike Mularkey? The former Boston College star laughed heartily and responded with a no for each of the career-high touchdown passes.
"No, no, no, no," he said. "Mike does a great job for us, and that's for sure."
Perhaps, but it's not a stretch to say that the offense was experiencing growing pains to that point. Despite possessing talents like running back Michael Turner, wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, general manager Thomas Dimitroff was dissatisfied in the offseason after the unit failed to keep pace with the Packers in a 48-21 playoff-opening loss to the Packers last season. So he traded up 21 spots to select electric Alabama wideout Julio Jones sixth overall in this year's draft.
In explaining the move, Dimitroff repeatedly used the term "explosive" to describe his vision for a unit that ranked seventh overall with 379 points last season. Implicit in that was a desire for more quick strikes and long gains through the air, in that rules changes are so advantageous to quarterbacks and receivers. Atlanta ranked next-to-last with only 32 completions of 20 yards or more last season. By way of comparison, San Diego was No. 1 with 66 and the league average was 48.
The challenge now is finding a way to transition smoothly from a fairly ball-controlling offense to a big-play attack. The Falcons have yet to locate a comfort zone. For much of the first three quarters Sunday they seemed uncertain about whether they wanted to use the run to set up the pass, or pass to set up the run. Whether they wanted to strike quickly or grind it out.
"Right now we don't have an identity," said White, chuckling. "That's half our problem. We've played two games but we haven't played our style of football yet."
In one breath White says that means running the ball and using play-action passes to set up downfield strikes, however in the next he acknowledges how the offense seems to hum when Ryan is running the no-huddle. You have to believe Dimitroff didn't trade away two No. 1s, a No. 2 and two No. 4s to get Jones so the Falcons could play football's version of four corners.
Remember, Dimitroff's first major draft decision after being hired three years ago was to select Ryan third overall. Since then he has sought to surround the lanky signal-caller with big-play receiving threats. He traded for Gonzalez in 2009, signed White to a six-year extension, aggressively sought to move up for Jones, and drafted change-of-pace back Jacquizz Rodgers.
"It's what I expected and I continue to expect more," Dimitroff said of the offense after Sunday's game. "It's apparent that there are some explosive playmakers. We just have to continue to work it and work the system that we're in; and, hopefully, we'll also continue to evolve as that explosive type of defense that we're craving." Sunday was important for the offense because despite all the talent it was the Falcons who were the only team not to score an offensive touchdown in Week 1, falling 30-12 at Chicago. Ryan threw for 319 yards but had two costly turnovers that figured prominently. Complicating matters was that it was his second straight poor game. In a playoff loss to the Packers to end last season, he committed three turnovers and failed to throw for more than 199 yards for the second time in as many postseason games.
In the lead-up to Sunday's game, some outsiders were starting to question whether Ryan had the goods to lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl. It was the first time that such questions were being aired publicly, and a third consecutive poor outing could have turned a flicker of skepticism into a flame of doubt -- particularly with the still-popular Michael Vick making his first start in Atlanta since being released in 2009.
"I can honestly say I didn't feel any of that," Ryan said. "I don't think you can allow yourself to. You can't worry about that. You have to go out and prepare during the week. Don't get me wrong, it's frustrating when things don't go right. But you have to know that it's one of those things where you have to be able to live with the outcome either way. There are a lot of good players in this league. Every week is not going to be what you want it to be, but mentally as a player you have to have something to hang your hat on. For me, it's getting in there during the week and doing everything that I need to do, and then going out there on Sunday and cutting it loose and not worrying about those other things."
Sunday was far from classic. Ryan had four completions for 36 yards in the first quarter, two for 17 in the second, and three for 66 in the third. Sprinkled among those nine completions were touchdowns of 2, 4 and 17 yards, but not the consistency, quick strikes and big plays Atlanta expected to see coming into the year.
But Ryan seemed to be a different quarterback when the Falcons increased the tempo. After being harassed by a relentless pass rush and sticky-fingered secondary through three quarters, when the Eagles had four sacks and two interceptions, he took charge by completing 8 of 10 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. He also converted on three straight third downs (all by pass) after converting on only 3 of 9 in the first three periods.
"This was the type of game that will continue to build his confidence," Dimitroff said of Ryan. "He showed great resilience, and his toughness is second to none as a quarterback in this league. When you talk about a guy taking hits and handling the pass rush that Philly was coming with, Matt was able to deal with that and pick himself off the ground, dust himself off and focus on getting the ball where it needed to be. I was very, very impressed, and I know our owner and coach were impressed as well."
The fourth quarter wasn't exactly what Dimitroff envisioned when putting together the roster with coach Mike Smith, who says he wants a varied attack that controls the line of scrimmage -- something the Falcons have not done with consistency this year. However it was closer to taking shape, and for one night that was good enough for the win.