The Atlanta Falcons will feature a new engineer behind the operation of the offense this season, with former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter making his return to Atlanta and taking over for the recently departed Steve Sarkisian.
The main thing on many people’s minds regarding the change in OC is the question of how the philosophy will be impacted. Namely, how pass-happy will this offense be under Koetter as opposed to Sarkisian?
One tweet from Vienna Falcons illustrates just how similar Sarkisian’s tendency to dial up the pass was to Koetter’s over in Tampa Bay.
This study takes a look at 2018 pass rate controlled for time, down, distance to go and score.— Vienna Falcons (@ViennaFalcons) March 21, 2019
Dan Quinn, clearly unhappy with the lack of physicality of his old playcaller (Sark ranked 4th in pass rate), went ahead and hired the true bruiser Koetter... who ranked 5th.#Falcons https://t.co/GSlKFae1ad
As you can see, both led very pass-happy offenses, with Atlanta ranking third in the NFL in pass play percentage (65.25%) and Tampa Bay ranking sixth (63.13%). However, that’s also aided by the fact that the Falcons featured the fifth-worst overall defense and the Bucs featured the sixth-worst overall defense in the NFL last season.
Dan Quinn has made it known that he’d like to see more rushing attempts this year. The Falcons put their money where their mouth was in free agency, when they signed James Carpenter and Jamon Brown to beef up the unit and create some running lanes as well.
The idea sounds great in theory, but the most run-happy teams in the NFL didn’t exactly have a track record of success last year, as a related tweet from Ben Baldwin shows us.
This is just from one season but still pretty striking how well this correlated to playoff results-— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) March 20, 2019
Not a single one of the 12 run-happiest teams in Sean's analysis won a playoff game pic.twitter.com/igu6r3dRik
Look back on his three years as Atlanta’s OC the first time around and you’ll see just how pass-happy Dirk Koetter was. The Falcons were seventh in the NFL in pass play percentage in 2012 (62.80%), first in 2013 (68.65%), and third in 2014 (64.06%).
Now, you of course can’t just look at these numbers without using the team defensive statistics to provide context to the situation. The Falcons fielded a bottom 10 defense in all three of those years — 24th in 2012, 27th in 2013, and by far dead last (32nd) in 2014. However, even with poor defensive performances, Koetter had a tendency to abandon the run rather quickly in his time in Atlanta.
He seemed to have made a complete 180-degree turn when he first arrived in Tampa Bay, dialing up the run at a top 10 clip in 2015 and 2016 — Tampa was eighth in rushing attempts per game in each of those two seasons, and ninth in run play percentage. The Bucs also featured a top 10 defense in 2015, but were 23rd in 2016.
Koetter presided over a top 10 pass play percentage offense once again in 2017 and 2018, but he’s shown that the potential is there for him to scale it back a bit.
Atlanta’s defensive unit wasn’t good in 2018, but that was without leaders Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Deion Jones throughout the vast majority of the season.
That same unit was ranked ninth in total defense in the 2017 regular season, and proceeded to shut down the vaunted Rams offense in the Wild Card Round before doing their part against the Eagles in the Divisional Round as well.
That season, Sarkisian dialed up the pass 56.14% of the time, which ranked 22nd in the league.
With the defense expected to be back at full strength, Dan Quinn taking over defensive play calling duty, and additions expected to be made in the draft, Atlanta is hoping to have another top 10 defensive unit in 2019.
Koetter also hasn’t had a running back as good as a prime Devonta Freeman to work with since his Jacksonville days with Maurice Jones-Drew, when he presided over a Jags offense which cumulatively ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards over the five-year time period in which he was the offensive coordinator (2007 through 2011).
With Dan Quinn looking for a more run-heavy approach, the defense expected to bounce back, and Freeman’s presence in the backfield, I don’t think we’ll see this Falcons squad in the top 5 in pass play percentage once again this year.
Conversely, with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley clearly the focal points of strength for the unit, along with Koetter’s pass happy nature in recent times, and the proven success of passing the ball in today’s NFL, I still expect the unit to be within the top half of the league in pass play percentage.
It’s up to Dirk Koetter to find that happy medium between over-passing and dialing up the run to the point where it becomes a hindrance.