By GEORGE HENRY, Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian spent the offseason, training camp and preseason fine-tuning an Atlanta offense that has high expectations in his second year.
When the Falcons and Eagles open the NFL regular season Thursday night in Philadelphia, Sarkisian will be back in his role as play-caller, giving him a chance to move past some of the disappointment of eight months ago.
“To say that we had a fourth-and-goal at the 2 against the team that went on to the win the Super Bowl and it was a bang-bang play tells you that we’re very close, and it’s been this offseason of getting over that hump,” Sarkisian told The Associated Press this week.
“So we’re very hungry and looking forward to the opportunity.”
Sarkisian’s first season wasn’t exactly a bust. The offense led the NFL in third-down percentage and ranked eighth in passing as Atlanta went 10-6 and won a wild-card playoff game at the Los Angeles Rams.
But the Falcons dropped from first in scoring to 15th. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the league MVP the year before, threw 18 fewer touchdowns, was intercepted five additional times and had his passer rating fall over 16 points from the NFL’s best.
Even worse, the offense developed a reputation for being predictable. Atlanta scored its only touchdown in the divisional playoff game after the Eagles lost a fumble at their 18-yard line. The Falcons, who were favored to win, went scoreless in the second half.
Yet they still had a chance to sneak away with a win before it all fell apart at the 2.
With the ball on the left hash mark, the Eagles said they knew the call before the snap as soon as tight end Levine Toilolo motioned right across the formation . They had only one half of the field to defend as Ryan rolled right and came under quick pressure.
Julio Jones, the star receiver and obvious target, fell down in the right side of the end zone, but got up quickly enough against cornerback Jalen Mills to turn and face the quarterback. Ryan lofted up a perfect pass. The ball went through Jones’ hands .
Sarkisian, a former head coach at Washington and Southern Cal, has been through similar moments before, but this was his first big test as a coordinator in the NFL. He said he did the best he could.
“You put together a plan throughout the week and you get into situations and things are going accordingly, you trust the plan,” he said.
The Falcons are hoping to improve in Sarkisian’s second year the way they did in the second season of his predecessor, Kyle Shanhan, who called the plays that helped Atlanta win the 2016 NFC title.
Sarkisian said he feels more comfortable this time around, and it’s obvious why.
Ryan and Jones and center Alex Mack are three of the league’s best at their positions. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are tough to defend in the open field and the receiving corps that still includes dependable veteran Mohamed Sanu and added Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley as a first-round pick.
The biggest issue is getting the ball to Jones more often in the red zone. Sarkisian was heavily criticized last year for not having Jones, a two-time All-Pro, dialed in more often as Ryan’s No. 1 option inside the opponents’ 20.
“I think I’d be remiss not to say we need to get No. 11 the ball,” Sarkisian said, “and we need to make sure you defend No. 11, and Julio demands coverage that way.”
Notes: Long snapper Josh Harris was limited in practice Tuesday after missing Monday’s session with a hip injury. Coach Dan Quinn said he Harris will be a game-time decision. Two reserves, G Ben Garland and CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, will not play, but the Falcons are otherwise healthy.