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Behind New Coordinators, Falcons Hoping To Get Over Playoff Hump


pzummo
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One day after another Falcons' ignominious exit from the playoffs a year ago, a 24-2 loss to the Giants in an NFC wild-card game, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder resigned to take the same job with the University of Auburn. Two days later, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left to become head coach of the Jaguars.

Suddenly, coach Mike Smith had vacancies at the two most important positions on his staff -- neither of which were of his own volition.

"We understand that when your team has success that people on your staff may be in demand, and that was the case with Mike and Brian," Smith said. "I was very happy for both Mike and Brian, and they were both deserving of the opportunities they received."

Nevertheless, Smith had to replace his aids-de-camp. So he turned to two men he knew well and had worked with previously: Dirk Koetter, who had been the Jaguars' offensive coordinator for the previous five seasons, and Mike Nolan, who had a long NFL resume as a defensive coordinator, most recently in Miami, and also had been a head coach in San Francisco.

Neither Koetter nor Nolan came to Atlanta with a this-is-my-way-chip on his shoulder. They didn't burn the playbook. Instead, they took the best of what the team was doing already, added some of their own nuances, and came up with systems that helped the Falcons compile an NFC-best 13-3 record and capture the division's No. 1 seed in the playoffs. After a bye last week, Atlanta will host the upstart Seahawks in a divisional round game on Sunday.

Koetter, whose football instincts were formed early -- he grew up as the son of a football coach -- brought some of his own ideas to the offense but kept the same verbiage and calls that the Falcons had used under Mularkey. Instead of making the players learn new terminology, Koetter absorbed what already was in place. The teacher became the student.

"We didn't have to learn a whole new offensive system; he did," center Todd McClure said. "I think that was a great decision on his part."

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Koetter resurrected the screen game, which had become somewhat dormant under Mularkey. According to Koetter's calculations, Ryan completed 60 of 67 screen passes for 483 yards and six touchdowns. They weren't just standard swing passes to backs; Ryan threw a lot of quick bubble screens to receivers.

For example, the Falcons dropped from 17th in the league in rushing in 2011 to 29th this season. Michael Turner, who finished third in rushing last year with 1,340 yards on 301 carries, had 800 yards on only 222 attempts this season.

"I think my main contribution in Atlanta is making sure everybody's on the same page, and taking a combination of all the good stuff they were doing and just getting us all focused on the same page on game day," he said. "And trying to get the ball in our playmakers' hands and making sure that Matt was on the same page as his receivers."

That doesn't mean Koetter, who turns 54 on Feb. 5, two days after the Super Bowl, won't bring down the hammer. After a particularly bad practice one day this season, he addressed the offense in a meeting room with a sobering message. "There's only four guys in this room who can flip the switch and turn it on on game day," Koetter said. "And I can name them if you want me to."

"If you don't give them something new a little bit, then they are going to wonder why there was change," Nolan said. "There's got to be some things that generate enthusiasm by the players."

Although the Falcons fell from 13th in overall defense in 2011 to 24th this season (they also dropped from sixth to 21st against the rush and from 20th to 23rd vs. the pass), those rankings are determined by yards allowed. And they often can paint a misleading picture about a defense.

"We couldn't steal a takeaway to save our life," Nolan said. "And it showed as far as winning and losing."

Nolan has a longtime list of 15 key statistical categories that he believes ultimately defines a defense's success -- and Atlanta finished among the top five teams in the league in four of Nolan's first five: points allowed (18.7 per game); takeaways (plus-13); opposing quarterback rating (77.1) and red zone efficiency (opponents scored touchdowns in 19 of 42 possessions inside the Atlanta 20). The Falcons finished only 23rd in stopping opponents on third down, which is Nolan's fifth-most important stat. Individually, end John Abraham had 10 sacks and defensive backs Thomas DeCoud and Asante Samuel combined for 11 interceptions.

One thing the defense needs to do in the postseason is eliminate explosive plays by the opponent. During the regular season, the Falcons allowed 49 runs of 10 or more yards and 53 passes of 20 or more yards.

"We've been able to overcome it by getting another chance in the red zone and stopping people," Nolan said. "But you can't keep putting yourself in harm's way."

This will be the Falcons' fourth trip to the playoffs in five seasons under Smith. In each of their previous three times, they went one and done. They lost, 30-24, to Arizona in a wild-card game in 2008, 48-21 to Green Bay in a divisional game in 2010, and 24-2 to the Giants a year ago.

It's time for the Falcons to change their postseason pattern. Perhaps the new coordinator collegiality of Koetter and Nolan will help them do that.

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Hey look, an article that recognized we actually have new coordinators on this team. Thanks for posting.

"There's only four guys in this room who can flip the switch and turn it on on game day," Koetter said.

1 - TG

Who are the other 3?

Roddy?

Mud duck?

?

I was wondering that myself, and I have to assume he's talking about the older veteran players. Roddy, Duck, Gonzalez, and Clabo?

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"Nolan has a longtime list of 15 key statistical categories that he believes ultimately defines a defense's success -- and Atlanta finished among the top five teams in the league in four of Nolan's first five: points allowed (18.7 per game); takeaways (plus-13); opposing quarterback rating (77.1) and red zone efficiency (opponents scored touchdowns in 19 of 42 possessions inside the Atlanta 20). The Falcons finished only 23rd in stopping opponents on third down, which is Nolan's fifth-most important stat. Individually, end John Abraham had 10 sacks and defensive backs Thomas DeCoud and Asante Samuel combined for 11 interceptions."

Most impressive!

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