Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian admitted that he went through “growing pains” last season.
Consider that Sarkisian hadn’t been in the NFL since 2004. Then, in his first season with the Falcons, his return to the league was complicated by the fact that he had to learn the team’s offensive system, player capabilities and staff. The Falcons offense was coming off a spectacular season and run to the Super Bowl.
No pressure there, right?
“Year Two, is just night and day from a comfort level and from where we are as a team,” Sarkisian said this week.
The offense, without All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, completed Organized Team Activities this week and a mandatory mini-camp begins next week.
» More: Sarkisian knows offense has many issues to fix
“The team, offensively, these guys have had a really good offseason,” Sarkisian said. “It’s really been competitive. The guys have come in with a great mindset and they are working together really well. It feels better, but ultimately we have to perform when the Fall comes around. But it’s been really good so far.”
The Falcons went about their business without the dynamic Jones, who’s expected for the mandatory three-day mini-camp that begins Tuesday. He’ll be a major part of fixing most of the offense’s issues from last season.
“There are a lot of layers to that,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a dynamic player. Julio is a tremendous player. He’s a great leader. He provides a uniqueness to us offensively because of the threat that he is on every single play and that makes it difficult on defenses.”
While the OTA sessions were voluntary, Jones was clearly missed by the coaches.
“At the end of the day, can’t wait for him to be back,” Sarkisian said. “Would love to have him (here) and when he does (return) I know that he’ll be ready to go.”
Under Sarkisian’s watch, the Falcons dropped from first to 15th in the NFL in scoring, struggled in the red zone (23rd) and scored on just seven explosive plays. This offseason, the Falcons put the entire operation under scrutiny.
» Also: 10 things learned from Falcons OTAs
“We are digging into scheme stuff right now,” Sarkisian said. “There is a lot of scheme evaluation when the season ends. What went well? What didn’t go well? What do we want to add? What do we want to keep? There was a lot of that.”
The Falcons are hoping that first-round draft pick Calvin Rildey will help with the big-play touchdowns, which dipped to seven from 19 the previous season.
Sarkisian, who was on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff in 2016, was reunited with Ridley during rookie mini-camp and OTAs. Ridley, as advertised, ran crisp routes and got open deep during viewable sessions.
The Falcons are hoping that Ridley is an upgrade from former wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who signed with Chicago in free agency.
“There is still a lot of work to do, still a lot of room to grow,” Sarksian said. “He’s come a long way in a short amount of time.”
After their self-evaluation of the offense, the Falcons are looking to add some run-pass option (RPOs) plays for quarterback Matt Ryan.
“That is a wrinkle that could be effective for us,” Sarkisian said. “Matt is a really good decision maker. To do that you have to have quick hands as a quarterback. You have to have quick feet as a quarterback. You have to still make quick decisions. We know that Matt has those traits.
“So it’s something that I think we can incorporate a little bit more of and add it to the variety of offense that we have.”
New quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp watched Philadelphia run a lot of RPOs once Nick Foles took over last season on its Super Bowl run. He also coached in the AFC West where Kansas City used a lot of RPOs with former quarterback Alex Smith.
“It wasn’t the quarterback running a lot,” Knapp said. “It was more of a run or get off a quick throw off. There’s been some experience here already in place. It’s certainly something worth looking into.”
The Falcons believe the RPOs fit nicely with their outside zone running system.
“From my experience, it can be done in anybody’s offense,” Knapp said. “But it has to be done in the right situations. It can’t be the only thing that you do. ... If it’s the only thing you do, the defensive talent will catch up to you.”
The Falcons also want to better utilize the running backs in the passing game, while running backs coach Bernie Parmalee is working on Devonta Freeman’s pass-blocking.
Freeman’s receptions went down from 54 to 36 last season. Tevin Coleman’s receptions went down from 31 to 27.
“They didn’t get enough touches, catching the ball out of the backfield,” Sarkisian said. “We have to find those opportunities for them.”
Coleman, who Ryan says runs routes like a wide receiver, is ready for more action.
“They want to use me more,” Coleman said. “Line me up out wide and stuff like that.”
Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian discusses how he will be able to lean on veteran quarterback coach Greg Knapp and the issues that stymied the offense last season. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter
The Falcons are looking for a new fullback and hope to add more power to the offense.
“We’ve got three young guys in here right now, all of which are doing a nice job,” Sarkisian said. “But we are not in pads yet. Sometimes, it’s hard to get that real assessment of those things.”
The Falcons need to perform better in short-yardage situations.
“We used the power play as the change-up and it can be effective,” Sarkisian said. “Depending on who the fullback is and his comfort level with that stuff, we probably will depend a little bit more on how we lean on that aspect of our offense.”
The Falcons receivers have prioritized getting more yards after the catch during the last week of OTAs. Players will need to turn routes up the field after catching the ball and be more of a challenge for defensive backs.
“Getting yards after the catch is one of our (priorities) this offseason,” said Raheem Morris, the assistant head coach/wide receivers. “We were at the point last year where we threw a lot more shorter passes to get it Julio so he’d be able to run.
“One of best guys that we talk about in our drop-set is (Mohamed) Sanu. He does a phenomenal job of transitioning with the ball, which I love. The other guy is (Justin) Hardy. You want to be able to get those guys the ball so that they have the ability to run.”
Morris studied film of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Detroit’s Golden Tate.
“I think Antonio Brown led the league,” Morris said. “Golden Tate was very high. That’s something that we study because you want to see how they are getting the ball. If it’s screens or if it’s on the move.”
Sarkisian believes the offense, with the changes and added wrinkles, will flourish in 2018.
“The biggest thing for me is the overall comfort level,” Sarkisian said. “I can make some of the tweaks that I feel are needed for this offense to continue to grow.”