By MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
FLOWERY BRANCH — After 16 regular-season games it’s clear the Falcons no longer can reliably run the ball when they need tough yards.
They may not have to do it much in the playoffs, though, if they can keep slicing opponents with screen passes.
“The screen game for us is an extension of our run game,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “It’s putting the ball in our backs’ hands and our wide outs’ hands in space with short, quick throws.”
As advertised, first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has used screen passes as a big part of his game plans. The results have been overwhelmingly positive.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, before the Falcons played the Lions on Dec. 22, Ryan had completed 50 of 57 screen-pass attempts for 374 yards and five touchdowns. The completion and attempt numbers on screens were second in the NFL at the time, and the touchdown passes led the league.
Ryan finished the season 62-of-69 for 495 yards and six touchdowns on screen plays. That’s 7.2 yards per attempt and a touchdown every 11.5 screen plays.
Contrast that with the Falcons’ rushing numbers: 1,397 yards on 378 attempts and 12 touchdowns. That’s 3.7 yards per play and a touchdown every 31.5 rushing plays.
The Falcons’ embrace of screen passes has been a major difference between Koetter and his predecessor, Mike Mularkey. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Ryan completed 16 screens for a total of 68 yards with no touchdowns last season.
Screen passes are thrown behind the line of scrimmage, usually to one side of the field or the other, with blockers fanning out to clear lanes for the receiver.
“Our philosophy is to try to turn it into a punt return,” Koetter said. “The screen game is good when you’ve got good guys to throw it to. We’ve got good guys who can make plays. Our linemen have bought into it.”
Atlanta’s power running game, once a staple, has floundered. Rather than force the issue, the Falcons have supplanted their rushes with screen passes.
Ryan has thrown screen passes to running backs Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. Those typically have been traditional screen plays to the short flat with Ryan and multiple linemen selling a drop-back pass before setting up the screen.
But Ryan also has thrown screen passes to wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas; even tight end Tony Gonzalez has been a target. Those usually have been quick passes to the outside with wide receivers and one lineman blocking.
“(Koetter’s) got a good design, and they are probably the best screen team in quite a while,” Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said before the Falcons gashed his team with one such play.
White’s 39-yard touchdown pass against Detroit was an example of the creativity and deception behind Koetter’s use of screen plays.
The Falcons sold the play as a toss to the right to Rodgers. One way they did this was to motion wide receiver Drew Davis tight to the formation as a blocker, a role he has filled regularly this season.
It looked like a run to the Lions, but Ryan faked the pitch to Rodgers and threw a screen pass left to White. He had room to maneuver because Detroit’s linebackers and safeties flowed toward Rodgers, and Gonzalez and left tackle Sam Baker delivered key blocks as White ran untouched to the end zone.
“That’s great play-calling and great game-planning by the Falcons,” ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said during the telecast.
The Falcons didn’t score a touchdown on a screen pass Sunday against the Buccaneers, but as usual, those plays were more effective than running plays.
The Falcons rushed for only 65 yards on 16 attempts against Tampa Bay, but Ryan completed all six of his screen passes for 66 yards. Jones’ 28-yard reception on a screen pass was Atlanta’s longest play of the day.
Normally the drawback to passing frequently is the potential for interceptions, and when time management is the goal, stopping the clock with incomplete passes. Screen passes eliminate those risks for the most part, making them about as safe as running the ball.
“You could make that case,” Koetter said. “I don’t think we look at it that way.”
Instead, Koetter said he likes that screen plays force defensive linemen to run more than usual when they react to them. They also can slow down an aggressive pass rush.
More important, Koetter said the Falcons believe screen plays are a potential source of big plays without much danger of negative yards by throwing behind the line of scrimmage.
“Normally on a screen play, if you can just get it started and get it blocked at the point of attack, you are going to make yards,” he said. “And when you have good players, ‘make yards’ can turn into explosive plays.”
OTHER RECENT STORIES