FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As you first watch and listen to the Atlanta Falcons in training camp, you quickly realize something is different.
They’ve got a bunch of marquee players (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Asante Samuel), but the buzz isn’t about them. Instead, most of the talk is about two new assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That’s understandable, because a lot of people thought the Falcons needed some major changes after they got thumped by the New York Giants in the first round of last season’s playoffs.
With offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (now head coach in Jacksonville) and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (now defensive coordinator at Auburn) leaving, Koetter and Nolan are big storylines. They might not have star power all by themselves, but watch and listen a little more and you’ll see the two new coaches have plenty of star power behind them.
“Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter have done a fine job of bringing their respective systems to the table and working with (coach) Mike Smith and the rest of the staff and developing a system that is melding well with all of our coaching opinions,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just one stamp from one coordinator or the other. It’s been really interesting seeing everyone come together on the respective sides of the football to develop this new system.’’
In conversations with Smith and Dimitroff, each repeatedly emphasized that key players (the guys listed above and a few others) have had extensive input into what the Falcons will do on each side of the ball. As soon as league rules allowed coaches and players to get together in the offseason, Ryan and Koetter began meeting regularly and discussing what the playbook should look like.
“There are a lot of things we’ve done well over the last few years, and the first thing Dirk asked me was what I liked and what I felt most comfortable with,’’ Ryan said. “Then, we took the things I said and looked at our production in those situations and some of it was surprising because we didn’t have as much success as I would have thought in some of the things I said I was most comfortable with, and we had some pretty good success with some of the things I didn’t necessarily think I liked.
"We also watched a lot of film of Jacksonville (where Koetter was offensive coordinator last year), and we talked a lot about why they did certain things at certain times. There was a lot of very good give-and-take. He’s extremely open to input, which is great for players, and I know he sat down and did the same thing with some other guys. But he also has his own opinions and is firm on his own opinions, and I like that about him.’’
The Falcons have been very public about some of the ways their offense will change. They said they don’t want Turner having to endure a 300-carry season. They said they want to use the screen pass more, after almost completely ignoring it in recent years. And they’ve made it very clear that they want to improve their downfield passing game.
What the actual playbook looks like is likely to be a combination of what both Koetter and the Falcons have done in the past.
The changes on defense are likely to be similar because Nolan also has consulted extensively with his key players. Nolan has spent 14 years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, seven of them in the 4-3 defense and seven in the 3-4. The Falcons will continue to use the 4-3 as their base, but there could be some 3-4 looks and principles.
“We just have a lot of different things that we can do,’’ outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not being passive at all. Our mindset is that we want to go out there and dictate. We don’t want to adjust to what an offense is doing. We want to put it on them to make changes.’’
That would be a change from the VanGorder days, when the Falcons had some individual talent and a fair amount of overall success, but never really had an identity as a defense. The Falcons will be different on both sides of the ball.
“When you have new eyes, so to speak, you get a different view,’’ Smith said. “We may have had a view that this guy’s strengths are A, B and C and his weaknesses are D, E and F, and a new guy comes in and, because he’s coming from a different perspective, he sees it differently. I think that’s interesting in terms of evaluating your roster because you have two new sets of eyes.’’
Maybe the eyes will have it. Maybe the new coordinators and new playbooks will be enough to help the Falcons win a playoff game for the first time since Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan arrived in 2008.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. The running game with Turner’s limit on carries. Despite all the talk about the downfield passing game, I don’t think the Falcons want to suddenly just abandon the running game. Turner still is powerful and can help open things up for the passing game. The Falcons just don’t want to wear him out. They’ve used Jason Snelling at times to give Turner some rest, and Snelling will be involved again this season. But I don’t think he’s really the guy the Falcons are looking at to pick up a big chunk of Turner’s carries.
I’m almost certain they have big plans for second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and I think those plans might be a lot bigger than people realize. That’s largely because Rodgers is bigger than the Falcons realized when they drafted him last year.
“Jacquizz is not little,’’ Smith said. “He’s short, but he’s thick. People projected him to be a third-down back, a change-of-pace back. I think the guy has the skill set to play on all three downs. One of the things that stood out to me more than anything is his ability to pass protect. A lot of times, your change-of-pace back, you’ve got to get him the ball and not ask him to be a part of the protection. I don’t think that’s the case with Jacquizz. I think Jacquizz is an all-around back that can play on all three downs.’’
2. Positive reinforcement. I don’t know if they were veiled shots at Mularkey, VanGorder and former middle linebacker and defensive leader Curtis Lofton, but I think it was significant that Smith and Dimitroff repeatedly used the word “positive’’ when they talked about the coaching styles of Koetter and Nolan, and as they talked about the leadership qualities Samuel brings, and what kind of leader they expect Weatherspoon to become.
“Sean is such a positive guy,’’ Smith said. “He is vocal, but he’s never negative in the way he speaks. He’s always very positive.’’
Samuel was described in the same way. So were Nolan and Koetter.
I never sensed a lot of negativity from Mularkey, VanGorder or Lofton, but I also never sensed any of them were rah-rah guys. It sure seems like Smith and Dimitroff feel their team needed more positive reinforcement.
3. The pass rush. For far too long, Atlanta’s pass rush has consisted of Abraham and almost nothing else. Maybe fellow defensive end Ray Edwards steps up after an injury-filled season that limited him to 3.5 sacks. Or maybe reserves Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann produce more. But I get the sense Nolan isn’t looking to have only defensive ends rush the passer.
“The way practice is going right now, we’re really excited about getting the linebackers more involved in rushing the passer,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Even in seven-on-seven, we’re going. That will help those guys out there on the edge because now offenses are going to have to account for us all day. It’ll be better because we’ll be able to keep them on their heels.’’
And it won’t be just the linebackers. Look for the cornerbacks and safeties to also get plenty of opportunities to blitz.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Time to fly. A lot of great young quarterbacks have seemed to hit a wall early in their careers. Even Peyton Manning had a reputation for not being able to win the big one early in his career, and look how that’s worked out. I’m not saying Ryan is going to turn into the second coming of Manning, but I think this is the year in which Ryan finally can earn a firm spot in the category of elite quarterbacks.
The guy has done some very good things in his first four seasons and he’s worked very hard to bulk up this offseason, so that he’s not worn down when the playoffs roll around. Ryan has a good arm, excellent mental skills and a strong work ethic. But, for some reason, he just hasn’t been able to take the next step. Last year, the Falcons brought in Jones to give him another weapon to go with White and Gonzalez. This year, they brought in Koetter, who has obvious instructions to get the most out of Ryan’s skills.
When you keep doing things the right way, sooner or later it’s all bound to click.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The offensive line. This was a big problem spot last year. Ryan frequently didn’t have enough time to throw the deep ball. The Falcons got rid of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and replaced him with Pat Hill, who has a nice history with offensive lines. They also used their second-round pick on guard Peter Konz.
But were those two moves enough to bring dramatic improvement up front? Should the Falcons really be sticking with Sam Baker at left tackle? And even if they want to give Baker another shot, shouldn’t they at least have brought in a viable alternative in case he struggles?
I know a lot of fans think the Falcons should have done more up front. But the Falcons think they’ve done enough. We’ll find out who is right soon enough.
The Falcons lost a steady return man when Eric Weems left as a free agent. They’ve thrown out a lot of names, including some undrafted rookies, as candidates to take Weems’ spot as the punt and kickoff returner. But this is a team with a lot at stake this season, and I don’t see the Falcons handing either job to an untested rookie. I think they play it safe and go with third receiver Harry Douglas as their punt returner. He could also be an option on kickoff returns. If not, reserve cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens, as well as Rodgers, could be possibilities.
Ever since he was drafted in 2010, I’ve been expecting to see some flash from wide receiver Kerry Meier. Part of that is because the Atlanta coaches still talk about the former college quarterback as a guy that can play just about any position. Meier missed his rookie season with an injury and didn’t get a lot of playing time last year. But I did see him make a couple of nice catches in camp and also saw him getting work as the backup holder on field goals and extra points. Meier may have a tough time getting much playing time at wide receiver because the Falcons are so deep. But Koetter might be able to throw off some defenses by lining up Meier at H-back, fullback and tight end at various times.
I don’t want to raise hopes artificially, but I saw defensive tackle Peria Jerry working with the first-team defense while I was at camp. He seemed to show a little of the burst that made him a first-round pick in 2009. But Jerry tore up his knee early in his rookie season and has been reduced to a role player. He’s getting the first-team work because Corey Peters is temporarily sidelined with an injury. Peters’ starting job will be there when he gets back. But the Falcons would get a tremendous boost if Jerry can give them some production as a backup.
Veteran center Todd McClure has been getting all the first-team work early in camp. But I think the Falcons would be wise to take a long look at Joe Hawley and maybe even start him in a preseason game or two. McClure is 35, and there is no question he’s slowing down. I can see a scenario in which McClure wears out or gets hurt as the season goes on, and Hawley gets thrown into the starting lineup. The better long-term approach might be to go with Hawley as the starter and have McClure as a fallback option.
I don’t know what the Falcons are going to do about a No. 3 tight end after Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. They have six tight ends in camp. At least while I was there, the one that seemed to stand out was Tommy Gallarda. He looks like he can catch the ball a bit. More importantly, he’s 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds and looks like he can block.
A lot of fans are excited about third-round pick Lamar Holmes. They believe he could end up beating out Baker for the starting left tackle job in training camp. That’s not going to happen. The Falcons are going to give Baker every benefit of the doubt. If he’s injured or really struggles, they’ll turn to Will Svitek. Holmes is viewed as a project, and it could be a couple of years before he gets on the field.
Since the arrival of Samuel, the common assumption among many fans is that Dunta Robinson will be the nickelback and Samuel will start opposite Brent Grimes. That’s not as automatic as most think. Yes, Robinson will play the nickel position, lining up inside against slot receivers on passing downs. But that doesn’t mean Robinson won’t be starting and playing the outside on running downs. Samuel’s age, 31, is a concern, and the Falcons may not want to overuse him. They may start Robinson and, when they go to the nickel package, insert Samuel on the outside and slide Robinson inside.