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BEFORE A practice at training camp in Flowery Branch, Ga., new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter pondered a statistic that might explain why the Falcons would want to breathe new life into their offense. Last season, the numbers say, big, speedy Julio Jones was 38th in the NFL in average depth of passing target—meaning 37 receivers were targeted farther past the line of scrimmage than Jones. And though the rookie did make the most of his chances, averaging 17.8 yards per reception, wouldn't it make sense for Matt Ryan to air out a couple more deep shots to him each game? Koetter, who spent the last five seasons as the Jaguars' offensive coordinator, took in the information, said the Falcons offense seemed pretty explosive to him and went back to work.
That afternoon the Falcons had a spirited 15-minute, 11-on-11 drill at the end of practice. The first throw, from Ryan to Jones, was a deep out along the left sideline; gain of about 35. A few minutes later Jones took a cornerback one-on-one deep to the post, and Ryan led him with a perfect 65-yard rainbow.
As Koetter left the practice field, he said with a grin, "I don't think Julio's going to be 38th in that stat this year."
Atlanta is the second-winningest team in the NFC over the past four seasons—the four seasons in which Ryan's been the quarterback. The Falcons scored more points last year (25.1 per game) than 25 other teams, but they weren't happy with the development of the offense, particularly its lack of imagination; even if offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey hadn't gotten the Jaguars' coaching job, Atlanta might have replaced him. It's not just the 0--3 playoff record since 2008, when Mike Smith took over and handed the reins to Ryan, that year's No. 3 pick. It's not just the anemic 24--2 wild-card loss to the Giants last January. It's not a single game or a single thing. The Falcons analyzed their attack and saw two elements missing. One was a screen-passing game: Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta's version of Darren Sproles, caught just one screen as a rookie last season, and Atlanta's coaches think the 5'6", 196-pound back can be deadly if he gets the ball in space more.
The second element was the deep ball. When the Falcons traded five draft picks to move up 21 spots and take Jones out of Alabama last year, they envisioned him stretching the defense to make veteran Roddy White a greater intermediate and deep threat. While White was his usual productive self, with 100 receptions, and Jones did have an impact, Atlanta wants more out of Jones than 54 catches in 13 games. "They can use me however they want, and whatever way's best for the offense," Jones says. "But I have a lot of confidence in my ability to get deep."
Judging by the Falcons' practices, they're going to use Rodgers and Jones more this year—a lot more. Last season that pair, the team's most explosive playmakers outside of White, touched the ball on 138 out of 1,073 offensive plays (12.9%). Getting Rodgers and Jones more touches will almost certainly lift the Falcons from 14th in the league in average yards per play (5.6).
The veterans are fed up with the playoff failures—the 27-point slaughter by the Packers two years ago, the feeble offensive performance in the Meadowlands last season. "I was just sick walking off the field in that [Giants] game," says veteran defensive end John Abraham. "A lot of guys were. You can still feel the disappointment around here." Much as it was for the crosstown Braves in the '90s, making the playoffs isn't enough anymore for the Falcons or their followers. They've got to do something when they get there, or Ryan risks joining the line of good quarterbacks who couldn't deliver when it mattered most.
To win in the postseason the Falcons will practice being more explosive in the regular season. And for that reason, Koetter's play-calling will be under close scrutiny from the opening snap in Kansas City on Sept. 9. You can almost hear him whispering to Jones: Go deep, young man. Go deep.
WITH 2011 STATS