It was symbolic that the Falcons’ 2017 season ended on the Eagles’ 2-yard line.
A failed final play was an embodiment of the team’s season-long struggles to score touchdowns inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. Trailing 15-10, they needed a touchdown in the final seconds and failed.
After a few open practices, the Falcons have been working in private and say they’ve been drilling down into their red-zone woes and believe they have them corrected.
The first big test will come in the same stadium where last season ended as the Falcons will open the NFL’s 99th season against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia at 8:20 p.m. Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field in a nationally televised game.
“I feel really good about where we’re at,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “Obviously, we’ve put in a lot of work in the red area, it’s been a point of emphasis for us. I feel good about it. I think all of us, we're just excited to get started and to get going.”
The Falcons’ outside-zone blocking scheme, which relies on running the ball to set up the passing attack, has a sketchy past in the red zone over the past 10 years.
The Kyle Shanahan version, which was brought to Atlanta in 2015 with head coach Dan Quinn, has finished in the top half of the league in red-zone scoring only three times over the past 10 seasons. The three successes were in 2009 (12th, Houston), Washington (fourth, 2012) and Atlanta (eighth, 2016). Last season, the Falcons were 23rd in the league.
The knock on the attack, which features smaller and more athletic linemen, is that it flows between the 20s, but get’s bogged down in the tighter quarters of the red zone.
The Falcons added new wrinkles to the offense on their red-zone attack.
NBC football analyst Cris Collinsworth is in the group that’s perplexed by the Falcons’ red-zone problems and their inability to involve All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones. Collinsworth will work the game with Al Michaels and Michele Tafoya.
“If you can explain to me why Julio Jones hasn’t scored more touchdowns, I wish you would,” Collinsworth said. “I can’t answer that question. I mean, you would think that guy would be the greatest red-zone receiver in the history of mankind.”
Jones caught only 6 of 22 passes (27 percent) thrown to him inside the 20-yard line for one touchdown in 2017. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown caught 13 of 23 (56.5 percent) of his passes in the red zone for six touchdowns.
Jones’ red-zone touchdown came when he wrestled the ball away from New England’s Malcolm Butler in the end zone with the game already out of reach.
“Now, I know he gets a lot of attention, it creates a lot of opportunity for (Mohamed) Sanu and other guys, but it’s never made any sense,” said Collinsworth, who starred for the Bengals from 1981-88 after playing at Florida. “It’s just never made any sense to me, either. I just can’t explain that one. I have no idea.”
NBC analysts Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison, of the Football Night In America show, believe that Jones must be part of the solution.
“You definitely want to utilize him and see how defenses are going to try to take him away,” Dungy said. “I don’t think a great offensive coordinator would force every ball to him, but you would make people double cover him, make them tip their hand, and that’s going to help other people. But definitely, you’ve got to use Julio, and the fact that he’s such a big target in the red zone, he’s got to be a factor.”
Harrison, who played safety for 15 seasons in the NFL, would consider force-feeding Jones.
“He’s such a big target, such a dangerous receiver,” Harrison said. “He should have more of an impact in the red zone.”
Ryan said he’s comfortable with the scheme and the tweaks. Jones believes he’ll have a bigger role, but doesn’t think force-feeding him the ball would be wise.
“The thing is, we have to take what people give us in that sense,” Jones said. “We are not going to force anything down there. We have a lot of new wrinkles and things like that in the red zone. I’m not trying to gave anything away, but that’s what we are going to do this year.”
The linemen are comfortable with the new red-zone plan.
“We just have to give the skill guys time and make those holes,” right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. “I feel like we can do anything against anybody. It will be crucial to come out and prove that.”
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is set to enter his second season at the helm following Shanahan. He took the brunt of the blame for the offense’s slide last season, but was retained by Quinn.
The Falcons added NFL veterans Greg Knapp as quarterbacks coach and Bernie Parmalee as running backs coach.
Sarkisian believes the Falcons can rectify their red-zone woes.
“Our focus has been on owning our plan,” Sarkisian said. “Going into the details of our plan and then going out and executing those things at a high level.”
The Falcons assessed their approach over the offseason. They looked at ways to improve. Different route combinations, involving more tight ends and using first-round pick Calvin Ridley.
The crafty route-runner showed he could help when he caught a red-zone touchdown in the exhibition season. Ridley slipped into a hole in the zone, sat down and hauled in a 7-yard pass from Matt Schaub against the Chiefs.
“I definitely think I can help all over the field,” Ridley said.
The Falcons need to develop a bond in the red zone.
“The trust with the quarterback and receivers, the runner and the line, so when you develop those things over months of time, and now here comes Week 1, for me, it’s more about seeing some of these things come to life because we put in a lot of time,” Sarkisian said. “I’m looking forward to these guys going out and executing the plan.”
Sarkisian definitely plans to get Jones more involved, but he doesn’t plan to force passes his way. He’s counting on a collective effort.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say we need to get No. 11 the ball,” Sarkisian said. “We need to make sure you defend No. 11. Julio demands coverage that way, if you don’t then we can continue to do those things. When he does demand more attention that just opens up more opportunities for (Devonta) Freeman, Sanu, Tevin (Coleman), Calvin and (Austin Hooper).”
But, the plan appears to start with Jones, who’s had four consecutive seasons of at least 80 catches and 1,000 yards receiving.
“He definitely creates a different vibe, a different feel when he’s on the field because he just demands that attention,” Sarkisian said.
SHANAHAN’S SCHEME -- RED ZONE NUMBERS 2008-17
Year -- Rank -- Percentage --- Team
08 – 26th – 45.90 – Houston
09 – 12th – 52.38 – Houston
10 – 19th – 51.16 – Washington
11 – 29th – 41.18 – Washington
12 – 4th – 60.38 – Washington
13 – 20th (tied) – 52 – Washington
14 – 24th – 48.99 – Cleveland
15 -- 18th – 54.72 -- Atlanta
16 -- 8th – 64.56 -- Atlanta
17 -- 23rd – 49.18 -- Atlanta (Sarkisian)
27th –47.06 -- San Francisco (Shanahan)
SOURCE: NFL Game Statistics and Information Systems