Winging It

With a new offense that lets Matt Ryan take full advantage of his downfield threats, Atlanta is ready to soar
September 17, 2012

His Falcons had just dismantled the Chiefs 40--24 on Sunday in Kansas City, yet coach Mike Smith was left wanting. He was resting in his seat near the front of the team's chartered plane, and as he watched replays of the game on his iPad, he bristled at Atlanta's lapses in alignment and its communication on offense.

"There were some things we've got to get cleaned up," he says. "They were little things, but those little things will come back to haunt you later in the year if you don't correct them." It's just a coach's nature to never be satisfied: In reality the Falcons' offensive performance was among the most stunning displays of Week 1.

After four years of a ground-based attack that was methodical at best and plodding at worst, Atlanta unveiled an up-tempo, quick-passing game under new coordinator Dirk Koetter that produced points on each of the first eight possessions. Fifth-year quarterback Matt Ryan, playing with an enthusiasm and a focus previously unseen, completed 23 of 31 passes for 299 yards, three touchdowns and no picks for a 136.4 rating.

It would be easy to dismiss the Falcons' performance as a matter of circumstance. The Chiefs were down several defensive starters, including pass-rush standout Tamba Hali, who was serving a one-game suspension for violating the league's policy on substance abuse, and No. 1 corner Brandon Flowers (bruised left heel). But the Falcons had lost three straight season openers on the road. More telling, they hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in any of those games.

Points should not be an issue this season. The Arrowhead Stadium display was a bold reminder of why Atlanta traded two first-round draft picks, a second-rounder and two fourth-round picks to the Browns in the 2011 draft to move up 21 spots and select wideout Julio Jones sixth out of Alabama. It wasn't simply that Jones had six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. It's that his sprinter's speed and size (6'3", 220 pounds), combined with the playmaking abilities of Pro Bowlers Roddy White at receiver and Tony Gonzalez at tight end, give Ryan, 27, the necessary tools to take the next step in his development.

The Falcons had a combined 95 pass plays of 25 yards or longer over the last four seasons, which tied for last in the NFL. The struggle to make big plays is a major reason that Ryan has gone 0--3 in the playoffs, including in 2011 when Atlanta was the only team that failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first round. On Sunday, Ryan had four completions of at least 25 yards, but even more impressive was the cool and command he demonstrated when the Falcons went no-huddle in the first half, reeling off completions of 16, 15, 6, 5, 8 and 14 yards for a touchdown to Jones that made the score 17--10.

"Things were happening quickly, with decisiveness," says general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "Matt absolutely is playing with more of an edge. You could see it when he followed up [K.C. quarterback] Matt Cassel's touchdown spike by spiking the ball himself after he scrambled and scored. Matt's five years in now. It's his time."

Ryan got along well with former coordinator Mike Mularkey, who left to become the Jaguars' coach, but he seems to have a special bond with Koetter, a quarterback at Idaho State from 1978 through '81. Ryan and Koetter share a desire to attack. On Sunday, Jones, White and Gonzalez combined for 248 yards and three scores on 17 catches. "This is what it was supposed to be like last year," White told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "This is what we expected."

It was only the sixth time in Ryan's 65 starts that the Falcons reached 40 points. But the more important stat—which dovetails nicely with the team's new approach—is that Atlanta is 12--0 when Ryan throws at least three touchdowns.

"It was exciting and satisfying—though only the first game of the season—to see this starting to come together and get in sync," Dimitroff says. "During the team-building process, Coach Smith and I envisioned an offense that could take advantage of Matt's abilities, as well as the skills of those around him. We definitely don't feel that we have it all figured out offensively."

It wasn't perfect on Sunday, but it was impressive.

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He gained 194 yards from scrimmage, 191 of which came after Fred Jackson left with a knee injury.


Before Sunday the last Patriot to average 6.0 yards on more than 20 carries was Antowain Smith in 2001.


His 120 yards were the most as a starter (second most overall) of his seven-year career.


He had five catches and became the first Jets rookie to catch two TDs in his debut.


He had one fewer catch (nine) than Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings combined.



Nobody could've predicted a career-low four yards on 11 carries in Johnson's "comeback" game.


Even with sidekick Jonathan Stewart sidelined, he underperformed, losing one yard on six carries.


So much for the time-share. Gerhart got six carries; Adrian Peterson got 17.


He still hasn't gained medical clearance following a series of concussions.


His knee injury hastened Maurice Jones-Drew's leap back to the top of the depth chart.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID EULITT/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COMGREAT STRIDES Jones showed that he's well on his way to becoming an elite receiver, and well worth the five draft picks the Falcons gave up to get him. PHOTOJEFF MOFFETT/ICON SMI (RYAN)SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT A more demonstrative Ryan, now in his fifth season, showed a willingness to go deeper more often. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (MORRIS) PHOTOCHRIS SZAGOLA/CAL SPORT MEDIA (HILL) PHOTOMICHAEL HICKEY/US PRESSWIRE (COLLIE)