By Matthew Asher
Like every NFL season, surprises came early and often throughout the 2012 campaign. Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning, both coming off serious surgeries, are the two front runners not just for Comeback Player of the Year, but also for MVP. Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single season receiving mark and Madden Curse. For those in the South, Atlanta started out the season 8-0 and finished with a 13-3 record, the best in the NFC.
Typically when a team exceeds expectations, it’s due to the addition of a key player. Rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck and RG3 were the X-Factors for their respective teams. How did the Falcons do it? It wasn’t through a new player since all the big names were around in 2011. But something had to account for the change in play:
- Matt Ryan threw for almost 600 more yards than he did in 2011 and set the franchise record in touchdowns with 32. He finished with a QB rating of 99.1, almost seven points higher than his rating in 2011.
- The trio of Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White combined for nearly 3,500 of Ryan’s 4,700 yards and 25 of his 32 touchdown passes. In 2011, the trio had almost 400 fewer receiving yards.
- It certainly wasn’t Michael Turner’s production. After rushing for 1,300 yards in 2011, Turner’s production dramatically dropped with him finishing the regular season with exactly 800 rushing yards.
For the Falcons, their X-Factor is the new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
“Offensively there’s not a whole bunch of different plays that people are running,” left guard Justin Blalock said. “There are a couple of wrinkles that we do a little bit different. I guess the biggest difference is philosophy of play calling.”
What kind of play calling has changed? For one, Atlanta is no longer a run first team. “We’re seeing a little bit more screens, draws and getting the ball out on the edge to the playmakers,” Mike Johnson said at the beginning of the season. “I think we’re really excited about it. It’s one of those where you can’t five-step drop, seven-step drop on every play. We’re kind of throwing a lot of changeups at the defense right now and we’re just trying to get our technique down.”
Earlier in the season I wrote an article about Atlanta’s use of the screen pass and how the Falcons have used is as such an effective weapon. With Turner being pretty much useless throughout the season, it was the use of the screen pass that functioned as a type of run. Like a good rushing attack, a good screen pass will keep the defense honest and slow down the quarterback rush.
Not only does it slow down pass rushing, but it helps quarterbacks complete more of their pass attempts. Last year Ryan completed a respectable 61.3 percent of his passes. This year, Ryan’s completion percentage jumped to 68.6 percent.
It’s only Koetter’s first year as Atlanta’s OC but the Falcons may want to make sure he isn’t going anywhere soon. At the time of writing this on Black Monday, seven head coaches have either been released for fired and would love to have someone like Koetter inject new life into these teams.
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.