Dirk Koetter uses bye to study Falcons’ inefficiencies, Saints’ strengths

With a bye last week, the Falcons’ coaching staff got a head start preparing for its next game against the rival New Orleans Saints.

This allowed for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to spend some extra time studying a Saints defense that has been particularly strong over the past two weeks. Two games ago, the Saints held quarterback Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers to only three points. After falling behind 10-0 to the 49ers on Sunday, the Saints limited them to only three additional points in a 27-13 victory.

Koetter said the Saints’ defense has benefited from players returning to better health — although cornerback Marshon Lattimore (oblique), defensive tackle Malcolm Brown (calf), safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (arm) were injured against the 49ers — to go with adding linebacker Kwon Alexander to the group.

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Koetter also singled out defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson, David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport, along with perennial Pro Bowl selection Cameron Jordan, as disruptors up front.

“That gives them four defensive linemen who all flash dominance at times,” Koetter said. “Not many teams you go against have that. I think from listening to the TV announcers, they say they’re getting healthier and this is the healthiest they’ve been. It looks like they had a couple of guys dinged up in the game (Sunday) so we’ll have to see how that plays out throughout the week.”

Koetter has plenty of experience coaching against the Saints. Over the past eight years, Koetter has coached in some capacity in the NFC South. First, he was with the Falcons as an offensive coordinator from 2012-14. He then went to Tampa Bay, where he was the offensive coordinator in 2015 before becoming the head coach from 2016-18. Fired from his post with the Buccaneers, he came back to the Falcons last year.

Since 2012, Koetter is 8-8 against the Saints. He noted the reason the Saints are tough to coach against is because their personnel is always among the best in the NFL.

“I think the common thread is they are well coached and they have really good players. They are a really talented defense,” Koetter said. “They are an aggressive defense. They have some of the top players at their position in the league. They are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They’ve added some veteran free agents to the mix who are good players and some guys they have developed who have come up through the ranks who are playing really well for them as well.”

While the Falcons got to look ahead at their next opponent, the bye week also served as a period for some introspection. Asked what areas he focused to improve upon over the bye week, Koetter chuckled briefly before noting he pored over everything. Koetter said he dedicated much of his time to self-evaluate what needs to be fixed for the final seven games.

Efficiency, particularly in the red zone, remains at Koetter’s forefront.

“You always come back to the same stuff that you already knew you needed to work on,” Koetter said. “The main one is we would like to be efficient across the board, but mainly that applies to the red zone. We have to have a higher touchdown percentage in the red zone. You also find out you’re doing a lot of things well.”

This season, the Falcons rank 27th in scoring touchdowns when reaching the red zone, having converted those opportunities at a 52.9% clip. Over the past three weeks, the Falcons have scored touchdowns in red zone situations 50% of the time.

In addition to better red-zone efficiency, Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris added that an area discussed over the bye week was to play better late in games with the lead. Two weeks ago, the Falcons led the Denver Broncos 27-6 early in the fourth quarter but needed a couple of big defensive plays to stave off a rally in a 34-27 victory.

“We got a chance to go back and look at when we get these leads, how do we maintain these leads and what we want to do,” Morris said. "You may see a couple of different things when we’re coming out that way and how we want to attack people in those situations because they’re going to come up.

“When your offense is as talented as the one that we have with Julio (Jones) and Matt Ryan and Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst and Calvin Ridley and all of the guys playing at a high level like they are, sometimes you’re going to get leads in this league. Sometimes you have to figure out how to keep those leads by not getting so confined into a box that you limit yourself.”