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COVER 9@9: Dirk Koetter counting on Matt Ryan to help pull things together

Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter runs through the new options for team in 2020. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Welcome to the Cover 9@9 blog — our weekly list of nine things that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons.

1. The No spin zone. Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has worried about a lot of things over this virtual offseason.

One thing he’s not worried about is quarterback Matt Ryan, who turned 35 on Sunday.

“He’s a veteran,” Koetter said. “He’s as good of a pro that there is. He’s getting his work in.”

In years past, Ryan has gotten the players together for a players-only camp. Also, he spent time working with tight end Austin Hooper in the offseason.

With the coronavirus pandemic, Ryan’s plans are unclear.

“We’re in a stage where all we can do is meet with these guys virtually,” Koetter said. “We can’t be involved in the workout stuff and the on-the-field stuff. Matt is a pro and he knows how to get ready, and he will be ready.”

Those offseason get-togethers can be helpful, but may not be safe for a mass gathering.

“They are important, and Matt knows how important they are,” Koetter said. “If I know, Matt he’ll take care of it.”

Maybe he can get some time in with new tight end Hayden Hurst.

"That's just the world we are living in," Koetter said. "Hayden, the new tight end. Laquon (Treadwell), new receiver. They are in the meetings with the coaches, and we have time parameters that we are limited to on that. Those guys are all doing their workouts on their own.

“If they’re getting in groups, they are getting it groups. I’m sure Matt will have them ready.”

2. Where does Treadwell fit. Koetter looks forward to seeing Treadwell, who's listed at 6-foot-2, and 215 pounds.

“I’m not going to know for sure until we get him here and see him, but he definitely has the size and has the hands,” Koetter said.

Treadwell, who was selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft, caught 65 of 107 targets (60.7%) for 701 yards (10.8 yards per catch) and two touchdowns over four seasons with the Vikings.

With Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, Treadwell looks like the fourth wheel at best. Then there’s wide receivers Brandon Powell, Olamide Zaccheaus and undrafted rookie Chris Rowland.

The Falcons also have Christian Blake, Devin Gray, Juwan Green and Jalen McCleskey on the 90-man roster.
3. Where are the outside zone runs? The outside zone runs that Falcons used under Kyle Shanahan disappeared over the past three seasons.

Steve Sarkisian replaced the stretch runs with toss sweeps. The Falcons didn’t get outside very well last season, and it appeared that Koetter shifted away from the staple runs and the bootlegs that came off of them.

Coach Dan Quinn has talked about being an outside zone team and how third-round pick Matt Hennessy fits the outside zone scheme.

But when I asked Koetter about outside zone runs — twice — he didn’t want to get that specific.

“We definitely need to run the ball better than we did last year,” Koetter said. “Just like Q was telling you guys, your run game sets up your play-action game.”

Koetter spoke in generalities about play-action being set up by a good running game.

“It never fails, every year when you go back and look at the cutups, the play-action game is where the explosive plays come,” Koetter said. “We still had 30 percent of our play-action, were explosive plays. Your play-action is going to be better if you’re running it better. We have to run the football more efficiently. We just have to do a better job there.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE OUTSIDE ZONE RUNS?

“Coach it better and execute it better,” Koetter said.

Well, guess myself and Michael Cunningham will have to keep charting the run game.

4. Gurley is going to be a snap count. Koetter all but admitted that running back Todd Gurley is going to be on a snap count.

“Yes, we do,” Koetter said when asked if they had a number touches in mind for Gurley.

He didn’t what to share the number because he didn’t want to be bothered with getting asked about it week to week.

“But in every single game (with the Rams), he still averaged 17 touches a game,” Koetter said. “I think 15 rushes and two catches was the average.”

(Actually, Gurley averaged 16 touches per game. He averaged 13.9 carries game and 1.9 catches. Gurley had 20 or more carries in just three games.)

So, it’s reasonable to conclude that the 15-to-20 touch-a-game range seems workable.

Koetter has been studying Gurley’s tape from last season.

“You watch the Tampa game and they threw him a ton of passes,” Koetter said. “He looks like a really good receiving back ... that was a high-scoring game. He flashed in every game, but I don’t know the details of what was going on there.”

Koetter liked what he saw from Gurley in the games against Carolina and Chicago.

In a 30-27 win over Carolina on Sept. 8, he rushed 14 times for 97 yards and a touchdown and caught a pass for 4 yards.

In a 17-7 win over Chicago on Nov. 17, Gurley rushed 25 times for 97 yards and had a catch for 3 yards.

In the 55-40 loss to Tampa Bay on Sept. 29, he caught a season-high seven passes for 54 yards.

“When you are not on the team, I don’t know what went on inside the Rams,” Koetter said. “I don’t know how much Todd practiced during the week. How healthy he was, I don’t know any of that.

“It doesn’t matter anyway. All that matters is what happens here. We’ll find out his health after he gets here. He’s saying all of the right things.”

The Falcons need Gurley to bounce back from a career-low 857 yards rushing in 2019.

“I just talked to him the other day,” Koetter said. “I know he’s excited. I know the fans are excited. All of the Georgia Bulldogs fans are excited to get him here. We’ll just see. You can’t deny his talent and what he’s already done in this league. The question is his health and we’ll just have to see.”

Koetter is hopeful that Gurley can return to form.

“Todd is only 25 years old, and he’s had two seasons where he’s arguably been the best running back in football,” Koetter said. “You are just talking about different degrees. When he’s at his best, he’s got speed. He’s got power. He can break tackles. He’s elusive. He can catch the ball out of the backfield.”

5. Will Koetter stay with the run? Even with Gurley, there are some who think Koetter won't stick with the running game. 

In his seasons with Ryan as quarterback, Koetter has never had a 1,000-yard running back.

In 2012, Michael Turner rushed for 800 yards. Steven Jackson went for 543 in 2013 and 707 in 2014. Last season, Devonta Freeman managed just 656 yards.

“The analytics say, yes, number of rushes matter,” Koetter said. “The analytics and we’ve studied it a lot. The analytics say the number of rushes matter. Usually, a lot of that has to do with if you’re ahead in the game, you’re probably running it more than if you are playing from behind. To run it more, you have to run it efficiently.”

The Falcons were behind a lot in the first half of last season, so the running game never got traction.

“I can just tell you as a play-caller there is nothing worst than going into game saying we really want to run the ball this week and you run in it on first down and gain one yard and now it’s second-and-9,” Koetter said. “You run in on second down and gain one yard and now it’s third-and-8. It’s a lot easier to run the ball when you are gaining four-plus yards, you’re gaining over four yards a rush and you’re moving the chains, you’re staying ahead of the chains so to speak.

“Then it’s easier to keep calling runs.”

6. Left guard battle. Rookie center/guard Matt Hennessy is going to have an uphill battle unseating nine-year veteran James Carpenter, if he's healthy.

“Hennessy is a smart player,” Koetter said. “He has shown in his college tape that he fits in our type of scheme. Just watching him in the virtual meetings you can tell that he’s sharp and he’s on the ball. Anxious to get out there and get working with him.”

7. Ridley is on pace. Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley caught 63 passes for 866 yards and seven touchdown over 13 games last season. After suffering an abdominal injury, he missed the final three game of the season.

He was on pace for a 1,000-yard season.

“I think the Calvin is just going to continue to grow,” Koetter said. “Julio is the elite of the elite. Two guys who still have room to really grow are Calvin and Russ. I think both of those guys as they get more confident and they get more time with Matt, they are just going to get better and better.”

After Mohamed Sanu was traded, Gage’s playing time increased. He caught 49 of 74 targets (66.2%) for 466 yards (9.1 yards per catch) and a touchdown

“When Russ got more opportunities, his talent started to show up,” Koetter said. “His confidence grew. As his confidence grew, he got better. Just for any player that goes from a role player to a part-time starter, consistency is the next phase. … I think Russ is very talented and I think we’ll see a jump in his game.”

Here's a game-by-game breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons' 2020 schedule.

8. Exhibition schedule set. The dates and times were set for the Falcons' exhibition schedule Monday.

The Falcons will have two exhibition games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Aug. 14 vs. Miami and Aug. 28 vs. Cincinnati) and two on the road (Aug. 21 at Buffalo and Sept. 3 at Jacksonville).

The full league schedule was released May 7. Here's a breakdown of the 2020 schedule: game-by-game.

9. Depth chart. Here's a look at the Falcons' updated depth chart, which includes undrafted rookie free agents:

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 13 Christian Blake, 19 Devin Gray, 80 Laquon Treadwell, Chris Rowland, Juwan Green 
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 75 John Wetzel, Hunter Atkinson 
LG 61 Matt Hennessy, 73 Matt Gono, 77 James Carpenter, 64 Sean Harlow
C 51 Alex Mack, 61 Matt Hennessy, 64 Sean Harlow, Austin Capps
RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 68 Jamon Brown, 65 Justin McCray, Justin Gooseberry
RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 65 Justin McCray, Scottie Dill, Evin Ksiezarczyk
TE 81 Hayden Hurst, 86 Khari Lee, 87 Jaeden Graham, 85 Carson Meier, Jared Pinkney, Caleb Repp
WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Russell Gage, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 15 Brandon Powell, Jalen McCleskey
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 6 Kurt Benkert, 16 Danny Etling 
RB 21 Todd Gurley, 25 Ito Smith, 30 Qadree Ollison, 23 Brian Hill, 42 Craig Reynolds
FB 40 Keith Smith, Mikey Daniel

DEFENSE 

DE 56 Dante Fowler, 53 Austin Larkin, Bryson Young
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 50 John Cominsky, Hinwa Allieu 
DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 90 Marlon Davidson, 94 Deadrin Senat, Sailosi Latu
DE 93 Allen Bailey, 55 Steven Means, 53 Austin Larkin 
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 92 Charles Harris, 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Austin Edwards
LB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 46 Edmond Robinson, 52 Ahmad Thomas, Jordan Williams 
LB 45 Deion Jones, 59 LaRoy Reynolds, 43 Mykal Walker, Ray Wilborn
RCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 29 Josh Hawkins, 39 C.J. Reavis, Delrick Abrams, Tyler Hall 
LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 28 Jordan Miller, Rojesterman Farris
NCB 20 Kendall Sheffield, 34 Chris Cooper
SS 37 Ricardo Allen, 22 Keanu Neal, 32 Jaylinn Hawkins, 35 Jamal Carter 
FS 27 Damontae Kazee, 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo
KO 7 Younghoe Koo
P 9 Ryan Allen, 4 Sterling Hofrichter
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 9 Ryan Allen
KOR 15 Brandon Powell, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus
PR 15 Brandon Powell, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus

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