The Atlanta Falcons had a tough time finding consistency on offense during the first half of the 2019 season.
In the first eight games of Dirk Koetter's second stint as Falcons offensive coordinator, the offense averaged roughly 21 points per game and less than a touchdown in the first two quarters of those games. Those slow starts coupled with breakdowns on the defense often meant the Falcons were in a deep hole by halftime, resulting in a 1-7 start.
There were, however, glimpses of excellence during the first eight games. In Week 3 against Indianapolis, the Falcons scored on every second-half possession, showcasing an offense clicking on all cylinders. That wasn't often the case prior to the team's bye week, though, but things did improve during Atlanta's 6-2 finish. The defense has – rightfully – received a lot of the credit for its part in the strong finish, but there are reasons to believe the Falcons' improvements after the bye week are a sign of things to come.
Matt Ryan believes one of those reasons is Koetter, himself.
"I definitely think Dirk, in the meetings that we've had, in hearing him talk about the offense, I feel like he is much more comfortable in the system in Year 2," Ryan said. "Just having a feel for the terminology, why we're doing certain things, how we want to utilize and set up certain things. It feels like, to me, he's a lot further along and feels really comfortable with it. I think that's going to help us out, for sure."
Although Koetter and Ryan had previously worked together from 2012-14, a stretch included an NFC Championship Game appearance and two Pro Bowl nods for Ryan, this second partnership is different. When Koetter took over for Mike Mularkey in 2012, the Falcons wanted to keep the offense they had already established. He was forced to adapt his offensive approach and beliefs to fit Atlanta.
Upon arriving back in Atlanta last offseason, Koetter was once again asked to adapt his offense to fit the scheme the Falcons preferred, the one Kyle Shanahan implemented when he came to the organization with Dan Quinn in 2015. This offense, which heavily features a wide-zone running scheme to set up play-action passing with layered route combinations, had a few more contrasts to Koetter's typical downfield philosophy.
"It was a completely different system in terms of terminology from the first time we worked together," Ryan said. "So, from that standpoint, it was very different."
Ryan appeared to be dropping back further and rolling out of the pocket less with Koetter calling the shots. Shanahan's offense has roots in the West Coast offense, which prizes timing and precision, and mixed in a lot of deception to take advantage of the space defenses vacated.
Early on in the year, the Falcons offense under Koetter looked a bit different than it had under Shanahan or even Steve Sarkisian. That is to be expected as every offensive coordinator, especially one as experienced as Koetter, has their own personal tendencies. After the bye week, however, the offense looked more balanced with the run game supporting the play-action pass. The Falcons scoring improved by a touchdown per game over the final eight weeks, and they averaged nearly 14 points in the first half of those contests as well.
Quinn has expressed his desire to get back to the roots of a wide-zone, play-action-based scheme this offseason, and it's a philosophy that Koetter has also embraced.
"Your run game sets up your play-action game," Koetter said. "It never fails, every year when you go back and look at the cut-ups, the play-action game is where the explosive plays come. We still had, I think, 30 percent of our play-actions were explosive pays, and your play-actions are going to be better if you're running it better."
Atlanta signed running back Todd Gurley this offseason, who has plenty of experience running stretch-zone plays from his days with the Rams. If he can help the Falcons become more efficient on the ground, forcing defenses to defend sideline to sideline, Atlanta may have a more effective play-action offense than it has had in a few years.
Koetter, based on his comments this offseason, appears to be fully on board with that approach. After spending a year learning the intricacies of exactly how Atlanta wants to deploy its offense, as well as the individual talents of the players he's coordinating, his comfort has been notable, at least to the person who might know that offense as well as anyone.
"He's the best," Ryan said. "He's great to work with, a great play caller. I expect us to play well this year."