By Matthew Asher
It’s amazing how simply changing a game plan can so drastically change a team’s performance in a season. Matt Ryan is currently on pace to throw for more than 4,600 yards, 39 touchdowns with a QB rating of 103. This would shatter his previous personal bests of 4,100+ yards, 29 touchdowns and a QB rating of 92.2 (all of which happened last season).
But why the seismic jump in statistics? After all, Ryan’s three main targets of Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White all were with Matty Ice last season. One reason may be an overlooked addition–not a player, but on the coaching staff.
Atlanta’s new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, may be the unsung hero of the Falcons dominance on offense this season. Coming over from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Koetter’s offensive playcalling has taken to Ryan and company like a duck to water.
The biggest change to the Falcons offense has been going from a run-first state of mind to a more vertical passing threat. This has allowed Atlanta to score nearly 29 points a game, currently the fifth most in the league. But it’s been a specific pass play that has given the Falcons such a boost and made them so dangerous: the screen pass.
It may be one of the most simplistic “trick” plays in the game, but when done right, it is not just effective, but very tough to contain. Last season Atlanta completed 16-20 screen passes for only 68 yards and no scores in the entire season. Against Philly in Week 8, Ryan was 9-10 for 81 yards and one touchdown.
That’s right. In just one game this season, Matty Ice threw half the number of screen passes that he threw all of last season. This obviously means that the play is working and that’s because Atlanta has figured out how to modify the screen pass to fit whatever scenario they’re currently facing on the field be it a conventional running back screen, tight end or jailbreak screen.
The beauty of using the screen pass means that Atlanta doesn’t have to rely on just Jones, Gonzalez and White to make all the receptions. The screen pass that the Falcons scored a touchdown on was thrown to fullback Jason Snelling who nearly walked into the endzone because of the great blocking up front and the misdirection that Julio Jones created by coming out of the backfield.
While scoring plays are always a bonus, the true purpose of the screen pass is to disrupt the timing and pressure the defensive line puts on the quarterback. Philadelphia’s defensive line is traditionally known for putting lots of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, making them throw earlier than they want to. When the screen pass is established, the defense has to tone down the blitzes because one called at the wrong time could easily mean Atlanta gets a huge chunk of yardage off a play designed to gain just a handful of yards.
In addition to disrupting the timing of the defense, the screen pass can also allow wide receivers–specifically Roddy White–to lay down some devastating legal hits on defenders. In the third quarter, Ryan threw a modified jailbreak screen pass for Jones. When Jones caught the ball out of the backfield, it allowed White to set up a legal pick on the defender covering Jones (because Jones was still within one yard of the line of scrimmage), which not only took Jones’ defender out of the play, but White’s defender was rendered void because he was caught up in the initial pick.
If properly defended, that play would have gained five yards at best. Instead it went for almost 40 yards. This means that until some team figures out how to defend against it, Atlanta has no reason to remove it from their game plan.
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.