May 30, 2019 Flowery Branch - Atlanta Falcons players participate in a drill during team practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Camp in Flowery Branch on Thursday, May 30, 2019. The Falcons are in the second week of Phase Three of the offseason program. They have another week of OTAs before the mandatory minicamp, which is set for June 11 through 13. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Falcons making strides in short-yardage situations

The Falcons have struggled in short-yardage situations. 

Despite finishing the 2018 regular season ranked fourth in the NFL in third-down conversions, the Falcons were more productive on third-and-4 or third-and-5 than they were on third down and 1-3 yards to go, according to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

The franchise’s short-yardage issues arguably cost them a Super Bowl victory in the 2016 season, when the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead with six punts and a fumble in a third-and-1 situation, when they were passing instead of powering the ball at the Patriots on the ground.

And in 2018, again the team’s short-yardage play potentially cost them a chance to advance in the playoffs when the Falcons’ season ended on the 2-yard line in a divisional playoff game against the Eagles, who went on to defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Adding some power to the offense for short-yardage situations, has been a major emphasis this offseason.

Things may turn around this season. With two 1-yard runs for touchdowns in the first half of the Falcon’s 34-27 loss to the Dolphins on Thursday in Miami, coach Dan Quinn’s emphasis on the short-yardage offense could be paying off, in part thanks to a new addition to the offense attack in blocking tight end Luke Stocker and improved play from fullback Ricky Ortiz.

The Falcons signed Stocker, a former Tennessee Titan, in March and hope to utilize the versatility of the 6-foot-5, 253-pounder. Stocker can also function as a fullback and is good in kickoff returns and punt situations, according to Quinn. 

And Stocker understands the importance of executing within the 10-yard line. It’s important to maintain good third-down percentages, but to do that, offenses have to convert on short-yardage plays. 

“They’re extremely important,” Stocker said. “Critical.”

Quinn has high hopes for Stocker’s versatility combined with the physicality brought by Ortiz, who’s in his second year with the Falcons. Ortiz and the running backs were practicing short-yardage slant runs at practice. The 6-foot, 233-pound fullback was one of the last men to leave the field at the end of practice.

Like Stocker, he can function in multiple roles, with collegiate experience at tight end and as a linebacker.

“Fortunately, we’ve got good versatility: big backs, big tight ends, the use of the fullback and size of the offensive line,” Quinn said. “All of those things are factors in the short yardage and goal line.”

In preparation for the season, Ortiz has been focusing on getting good body positioning and hand placement in the running game. He said establishing good technique is central to success in short-yardage attack, which means focusing on all the little things every day – the tangibles, like power and strength. 

“Everything else is just grit and attitude you bring to the place, short-yardage wise,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz played in 12 games with nine starts last season, his first with the Falcons, with three catches for 11 yards. Ignored in the 2017 draft, Oritz now is the Falcons’ first-string fullback, according to the team’s depth chart.

As big guys who can block out of the backfield, Ortiz and Stocker’s versatility will be big this season in the short-yardage attack, especially with the limitations of the NFL’s 46-man game-day roster. 

“Anytime there’s a person that can have more than one role, that’s a big deal,” Quinn said.

But with players who can fulfill multiple roles, it’s especially important to be clear on assignments, Stocker stressed. 

“Own your assignment and responsibility,” Stocker said. “You have to make sure your guy’s blocked and he doesn’t make the tackle.”

Quinn and Koetter also are looking for physicality and aggression out of the big blockers, emphasizing the necessity of converting in third-and-short and fourth-and-short situations to come up with touchdowns. 

“Being good in short-yardage and being good in goal line is part of being really good at scoring because that’s a possession and a drive that keeps going or a score,” Quinn said. “It’s a big part of what we’re doing we’ve practiced it a lot and hope that some of it comes up in the game as well.”

As the exhibition season continues, Quinn is hoping to see the offensive blockers execute in short-yardage situations and is looking to the pair to come up with big blocks.

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