Since opener, Falcons’ offense has produced on fourth downs

After the Falcons failed to pick up a fourth-down conversion in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said it would be best to wait until the end of the season before making any determinations on whether the team’s strategy in this area works.

But since that opening game, the Falcons have excelled in this category. For the season, the Falcons are converting 57.1% of their fourth-down plays, which includes picking up eight of their past nine opportunities. When it comes to needing three yards or less on fourth down, the Falcons are converting at a 70% rate, having nailed seven of 10 tries.

Much as he was after the first game, Koetter is still in wait-and-see mode when it comes to his unit’s execution on fourth downs. After Week 1, it appeared flawed. Since, it’s worked to near perfection.

But as Koetter noted, all it takes is another game such as the first to slide the Falcons' fourth-down average back down.

“I’ll stick to my answer,” Koetter said. “You gotta let it play out. When you go for 3-for-3, it looks good, and when you go 0-for-3 in a game, it doesn’t look good. That’s going to average out over the course of the year.”

During Sunday’s 40-23 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Falcons picked up three fourth-down conversions. More impressively, two of those plays went for touchdowns that combined for 75 yards.

The first of the fourth-down scores wasn’t necessarily by Koetter’s design, however. Late in the third quarter on fourth-and-3, quarterback Matt Ryan was forced to buy time and scramble to his left. With linebacker Eric Kendricks giving chase, Ryan found receiver Julio Jones down the left sideline at the last moment before lofting the ball his way. Jones made the catch and took it for a 40-yard touchdown.

The other score was by Koetter’s design and, in essence, a kill shot opportunity on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 35-yard line. Tight end Hayden Hurst came across the formation from the right side of the line on a play-action pass, with the Minnesota defense never accounting for him. Hurst made the reception and turned the play into a 35-yard touchdown.

The other conversion was a 3-yard pickup from running back Todd Gurley on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 38-yard line in the first quarter.

“We wanted to be really aggressive,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said. “We were aggressive when we could be, and we weren’t when we weren’t. But we took our shots, and they worked out well for us, and now you guys don’t have to judge me today. It’s awesome.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons coach Raheem Morris discusses what the team can build on after its 40-23 win over the Vikings.

Aiding those fourth-down conversions was the success the Falcons also had on third downs against the Vikings. The Falcons, which rank ninth in the NFL in converting 44 percent of its third-down plays, picked up nine of 17 on Sunday.

Ryan, in particular, went 8-of-10 throwing for 113 yards and a touchdown on third down. He credited Koetter’s third-down play selection as why he was able to have the kind of success in this area.

“I thought Dirk called a really good game for us on third down, put us in some opportunities to be successful,” Ryan said. “I think first and foremost, it comes down to our offensive line playing well. That was one of the better defenses in the league, statistically on third down, coming into this game. They had done a good job of getting to the quarterback. I thought our offensive line stepped up and played really well for us.”

Before Sunday’s win over the Vikings, myriad problems were presented in just about every phase for the Falcons. Against Minnesota, Koetter called a game that saw the Falcons turn the ball over only once when running back Brian Hill lost a fumble in the first quarter on what would have otherwise been a first-down gain. Ryan completed 75% of his passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns. His completion percentage and 9.3 yards per passing attempt were both season highs. He also distributed the ball to nine different receiving targets.

Although the rushing attack didn’t produce big gains on the ground, it did help the Falcons' offense — along with a strong defensive performance — control the ball for more than 40 minutes.

Being aggressive on fourth down played a big role for the Falcons to secure their first win of the season. Although this has become commonplace across the league, it seems the Falcons are going for it on fourth down more than most teams. The Falcons have called four fourth-and-3 passing plays, which is more than any other team in the league. Thus far, they’re converting at a 50 percent clip on that particular down.

In total, the Falcons have attempted 13 fourth-down plays and converted eight. Although the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans have yet to fail on fourth down this season, those teams have combined for 11 total fourth-down opportunities and conversions.

Koetter noted how different this approach is from what he was seen a decade ago. But based on the analytics at hand, it’s a strategy he’s adjusted and adapted to accordingly.

“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that just because the thought then was to punt the ball, pin them deep and play defense,” Koetter said. “Scoring is up in the league, completion percentage is up. The rules on passing definitely favor the offense. I’m sure that all factors in.”