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Opening Up the Offensive Playbook: Dirk Koetter and the Four Vertical Offense

We were promised a strong vertical passing game when Dirk Koetter was hired in 2012. So far results have been mixed (at best) but the new additions to the offensive line could be the final piece to the puzzle.

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Welcome back Koetter!
Welcome back Koetter!
Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of attention focused on the Falcons defense over the off season.  After their dismal performance in 2013 it's no surprise fans are excitedly waiting to see if the infusion of new talent amounts to tangible improvements.  To echo Murf's sentiments in his most recent article, it finally seems like the defense has a clear direction.  Mike Nolan is finally getting players that fit what he likes to do.  It is often overlooked that the same could be said about the offense.  Despite all of the talent the Falcons have had at their skill positions, this may be the first year they truly have the pieces necessary to run Dirk Koetter's offense.

Koetter faced some criticism from fans and the media for his play-calling in 2013.  Many felt it was too predictable and conservative. Personally, I think the guy deserves a medal for managing to find ways to keep the Falcons remotely competitive from game to game despite the glut of injuries heaped upon the offense.  It's a small miracle that Matt Ryan managed to finish fourth in the NFL in passing yards with a terrible line and a depleted receiving corps.  Ryan has gotten a lot of credit (and rightfully so) for putting in such a gritty performance but Koetter deserves credit for having to call plays with one hand tied behind his back.

Koetter's bread and butter is the four vertical attack.  The beauty of this system is that it's very simple in principal but can be tweaked in innumerable ways to attack any coverage the defense throws at you.  Contrary to the name this scheme doesn't focus solely on stretching the defense vertically.  At its core a four vertical is a horizontal stretch play.  The idea is to force the safeties to remain deep and cover the entire width of the field.  Here is a simple illustration of one of the foundation plays for a four vertical offense.


This is a good starting point for understanding the basics of a four vertical concept.  It's an aggressive play but it sill comes down to taking what the defense gives you.  This particular route combination would be effective against an off-man, cover-2 look.  The slot receivers push deep and force the safeties to stay inside which isolates the outside receivers.  The outside receivers break to the inside or outside depending on the cornerback's leverage.  If the corners have inside leverage the receivers break outside, and vice versa.  With the corners playing in off coverage there is plenty of space underneath to break the route off and come back to the ball.  It should be just a matter of pitch and catch.  Should either safety cheat too far to the sideline the inside receiver on their side would convert their route into post route and attack the deep middle.  For every measure the defense takes there is an offensive counter-measure.  All of these adjustments are made on the fly so it requires a heady quarterback and smart receivers but the Falcons have all of the above.

If you really want to get deep into the nuts and bolts of a four vertical concept I suggest heading over to X & O Labs to take a look at their two-part study on the scheme.  Here's part one and part two.  I've just barely scratched the surface with my explanation here so if you have the time give it a look.  They do a fantastic job of breaking down how different route combinations and formation variations can be used to attack different coverage schemes.  I'm interested to see what insights you guys may draw from it so let's hear them in the comments.  I'll be happy to try to answer any questions that may pop up as well.

Let me give you an example of this concept in action.

Here we can see the Falcons in a four wide set with Julio Jones and Harry Douglas playing inside.  The Rams are showing blitz with only a single high safety.  This is a clear advantage for the Falcons as long as the blocking holds up.

The outside receivers both run outside breaking comebacks which  force the corners to work towards the side line.  This leaves the lone high safety to choose between playing up on Harry Douglas, who has his man beat on an inside bending route, or bailing out deep to stick with Julio Jones.

The safety takes two initial steps towards Douglas which leaves Julio Jones wide open.

In what would turn out to be a rare occurrence, the Falcons offensive line held up against the six-man rush and and Ryan delivered a strike to a wide open Julio Jones.  With nothing but open field in from off him Jones easily took the ball the rest of the way for an 80 yard touchdown.  This play was one yard short of matching the longest pass of the  season for the Falcons and represents a best case scenario for the offense.  They were able to pick up the blitz and made the Rams pay for it.  Unfortunately stout pass blocking was not a trend in 2013.

Let's take a look at one of the many near misses from last season.  This one is from the fourth quarter of the Miami game.

This time  Ryan is operating out of a 3-wide singleback set.  The play action freezes the strong safety and the free safety has to account for Douglas who has easily slipped behind the nickel back.  Tony Gonzalez manages to get behind the linebackers but both of the Falcons tackles are over-matched and Ryan is forced to throw it away.  If the line could have held up just a split second longer this could have been a touchdown.  Instead the Falcons ended up settling for a field goal and went on to lose by four points.  That, my friends, is the story of the 2013 Atlanta Falcons.

This also illustrates the biggest weakness of the four vertical offense.  The scheme can account for any type of coverage thrown at it but it absolutely depends on the front five to get the job done with little to no help.  That doesn't sound like something that would work for the 2013 Falcons does it?  This is the reason I'm so impressed that Ryan was able to throw for as many yards as he did last year.  With the walking calamity that was the Falcons offensive line, Koetter was forced to throw out half of his playbook.  There was no way he could expect  Ryan to have enough time to attack vertically so the team made a living off of dink-and-dunk pass plays.  Vertical route combinations were replaced with wide receiver screens and curl/flat combos.  Even when they did try to attack down field the routes were truncated.  Most four vertical offenses have their receivers make their reads and adjustments somewhere between 15-18 yards but the Falcons were forced to shorten those landmarks to 10-12 yards.

Thankfully, much like the defense, the Falcons finally have the pieces they need to run their whole playbook.  I'd venture to say the Falcons two biggest additions this off season were Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah.  It's stating the obvious but the right side of the offensive line was the dumpster fire that burned brightest last season.  This looks to be the first season since the departure of Harvey Dahl that the Falcons have had a right guard and tackle combo that they can count on and I think we'll notice the difference immediately.

Alex Welch (with the help of Justin Kaspar) has already given us a great idea of what we can expect from first round pick Jake Matthews. Matthews is probably the best offensive lineman on the roster already.  If it's been a while since you've looked at the highlights Alex selected for his profile I suggest going back to look at them.  Matthews is a technician with the skills to deal with any type of pass rusher that lines up in front of him.  He knows how to leverage powerful rushers and has the footwork and quickness to mirror speed rushers.  He has the instincts and awareness to handle whatever stunts and loops teams like New Orleans or Carolina may throw at him.  Guys like Greg Hardy, Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are a little less intimidating with Matthews on the roster.

Though Jon Asamoah may not have the same overall potential as Matthews I believe he will have just as big of an impact.  Of all the weak links on the offensive line last year I think right guard was the worst.  Over the last few days I've gone back and re-watched most of last season's games and Garrett Reynolds offered absolutely nothing in terms of pass protection. Peter Konz was just as bad when he took over later in the year.  It didn't matter who lined up across from them they simply weren't equipped to handle it.  I could spend another 2,000 words trying emphasizing how bad they without even remotely approaching the point of exaggeration.  Jon Asamoah is the perfect solution for that problem.  He hasn't ever been a dominating run blocker but he is still a clear step above either Konz or Reynolds.  In terms of pass protection he's light years ahead of both.  Let's take a look at how he fared against some of the best competition in the NFL last year.  In week seven the Chiefs faced the Houston Texans and J.J. Watt.  The Texans played Watt at right end for most of the game but whenever he was lined up across from Asamoah he was rendered completely ineffective.  Here's one example.

Here we see Watt try to push past Asamoah's outside shoulder but he's completely denied.  Asamoah had the benefit of this being a quick pass play but considering their field position it was a clutch play against one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.  This was the result almost every time Watt lined up across from Asamoah.  Let's have a look at another example.

Once again Asamoah is tasked with taking on Watt with no help from the center and he rises to the occasion.  Watt attempts to knife through inside but Asamoah neatly drives him out of the gap and opens up a clear passing lane for Alex Smith.  Asamoah faced Watt roughly a dozen times during this game and  the results all looked the same.

Let's have a look at how he fared against Jason Hatcher, the league leader in sacks among defensive tackles from 2013.

There were a few other clips where Asamoah completely walled off Hatcher but I think this one is impressive.  Hatcher is able to initially shed the block but Asamoah shows great quickness to recover and push Hatcher out of the throwing lane.  It's not exactly pretty but it's a great example of Asamoah's tenacity.

He also shows great awareness when asked to pick up stunting linemen.  This was an area the Falcons struggled in mightily last season.  Here is another example from Cowboys game.

Asamoah makes this look easy.  The defensive tackle tries to push Asamoah far enough into the backfield to give defensive end George Selvie a clear path to the quarterback, but Asamoah shuts it down.  He doesn't give up an inch and quickly diagnoses the stunt.  He cleanly exchanges the block and rides Selvie out of the passing lane and right into DeMarcus Ware's lap, effectively taking out both pass rushers.  Maybe it takes a special kind of crazy to get fired up about offensive guard play but sifting through the film on Asamoah instilled me with a great sense of optimism for the 2014 season.  I promise I didn't just cherry pick the best four plays from last year either.  I watched his games from week two through eight and the results were consistent from week to week.  You won't see him bowling over tackles in the run game but you will rarely (if ever) see him get bowled over in pass protection.

According to Pro Football Focus, Asamoah only allowed a single sack in 682 snaps in 2013. Going back to 2011, Asamoah has only surrendered six sacks in 2,793 snaps.  In an offense that will look to pass early and often he is a perfect fit.

The signing of Bear Pascoe is another sign that the Falcons are hell bent on making sure Ryan has a clean pocket to work from this year.  He is widely considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and he will likely be leaned on heavily to help buy Ryan enough time to push the ball down the field.  He doesn't have much to offer as a receiver in any scheme but that's not why he is here.  A four vertical offense hinges completely on being able to keep the quarterback upright with only six blockers and for the first time in years the Falcons actually have six guys that can block.  If those six guys can stay healthy—and that's one heck of an if considering Sam Baker is in that group—this Falcons offense has everything it needs to be one of the top units in the NFL.