The ups and downs of Steve Sarkisian's first season as an NFL playcaller

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A couple of weeks ago, folks wanted to give Steve Sarkisian a collective pat on the back after the Atlanta Falcons went 11-of-14 on third down and put up 34 points in a home win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Then, after last week's 9-point outing and 1-for-10 third-down performance in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, some fans wanted to give the Falcons' offensive coordinator a swift kick in the butt.

Such are the ups and downs of a playcaller, something Sarkisian has grown accustomed to during his first year with the Falcons and first year as an NFL coordinator.

"We're constantly self-evaluating, or at least I am, to try to better ourselves," Sarkisian said. "There's never a moment of relaxation, of feeling, 'We're good,' so everything is just going to be OK and remain status quo. I think we constantly have to keep working at it, and that doesn't change. That's the process that I go through on a weekly basis.

"I don't really try to ride the highs and lows of the season. I try to be consistent. I think that's what's really important."

The Falcons are still trying to find offensive consistency heading into Thursday night's crucial showdown with their NFC South rival, the division-leading New Orleans Saints (9-3). At 7-5, the Falcons don't have much room for error with just four games left as they sit one spot behind Carolina (8-4) for the NFC's final wild-card berth.

To beat the high-scoring Saints (29.4 points per game) and win down the stretch, the Falcons know they have to click on offense with reigning MVP Matt Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and the potent running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman leading the way. But despite having all those weapons, along with threats such as Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper, the Falcons find themselves scoring a pedestrian 22.8 points per game after leading the league at 33.8 points per contest a year ago. They've averaged 29.6 points per game in their seven wins and 13.4 points per game in the five losses. And they've converted 21 of 38 red zone opportunities for 55.3 percent, which isn't bad but could be better based on their 61.9 percent conversion rate in 2016.

The coaches and players refuse to reflect on last year in comparing the statistics, but the reality is the offense hasn't been as high-powered as it was last season.

Some would say it has to do with Kyle Shanahan, now the San Francisco 49ers' head coach, no longer calling the plays, despite the criticism of Shanahan's Super Bowl showing. Some would say preseason injuries to Jones (toe surgery) and Gabriel (lower leg) kept them from being in concert with Ryan to start this season. Some would say the 19 drops by Ryan's targets have been the most significant factor. Some would say the offensive line hasn't done its part, although the Falcons have made the most out of what has been tabbed an "average" group by experts who played the position. Some would say the run-pass balance was missing during a three-game slide. And some would say Ryan's throws have been off at times, although he went through a three-game stretch -- and winning streak -- where he completed 70 percent of his passes or better.

But most of the finger-pointing typically is directed, if not at the head coach, at the playcaller, as Sarkisian freely acknowledged. Of course, not every play call has worked. He probably has visions of that jet sweep to Gabriel on fourth-and-goal in a loss at New England still dancing in his head. Things got much better in short-yardage situations when Sarkisian installed the heavy package featuring talented defensive tackle Dontari Poe.

From Week 1 until now, Sarkisian firmly believes, he has evolved as a coordinator. He had to step out of his comfort zone of working on the sideline, which he was accustomed to as a college head coach, to move up to the coaching booth, as suggested by head coach Dan Quinn. Sarkisian had to develop and enhance his communication with Ryan, first and foremost. Then he had to determine the best way to utilize specific players, whether it meant keeping a receiver such as Jones in or out of the game after running a post route or subbing Coleman for Freeman after Freeman broke a long run.

"I think all of those areas, naturally, I've grown to understand moreso as the season's gone on," Sarkisian said.

"As always, I want to score every time we get the ball to put us in the best position to win games. ... We've been an explosive offense, but I think the biggest thing here for us closing this season out with some big games ahead of us, starting Thursday night, is our ability to score touchdowns. I think that's going to be a real difference in how this season closes out offensively for us."

The players have stood firmly behind Sarkisian from the beginning. While the details behind the relationship between Ryan and Shanahan might never go public, there seems to be genuine trust between Ryan and Sarkisian, as Sarkisian came in and brought some new wrinkles to the outside-zone scheme Shanahan had implemented.

"I think Sark has been awesome," Ryan said. "His consistency throughout the year has been really, really good. His personality type, you know what you're getting from him every day. And I think, from a player, that's huge. You respect that so much of your coaches when they're consistent day in and day out; they're very clear about what they expect from you.

"I think he's done a great job of game-planning week in and week out. I think we've seen that now. He's put us in good positions to make plays. And that's really all you can ask for from a coordinator and a coach."

"His consistency throughout the year has been really, really good. His personality type, you know what you're getting from him every day. And I think, from a player, that's huge." Matt Ryan on Steve Sarkisian

Jones, who has been targeted six times or fewer in four games, with the Falcons going 2-2 in those games, says he never lost faith in Sarkisian. "He's been doing a good job for us; I can't complain," Jones said. "He draws shots up. We've just been put in different situations weekly. And we just have to get better together.

"It's never like, 'Well, it's the offensive coordinator, it's the quarterback, it's the running back.' Everything is all of us. ... And Sark, he's a players' coach. He's not stuck in his ways. He listens. If you come to him and say, 'We can do this and beat them here,' he'll draw it up. And it's always good when an offensive coordinator is like that because they believe in their guys. They know you're going to bring it to life."

The Falcons were humbled when they faced a couple of top-five, physical defenses in Minnesota and Carolina, dropping both games and failing to reach 20 points in both. Sarkisian talked about what he learned from those matchups, with the Panthers coming to Atlanta for the regular-season finale and even the rival Saints -- whom the Falcons play twice in the next three weeks -- improved defensively and particularly tough up front.

"I like to use the analogy of a batter in Major League Baseball," Sarkisian said. "Those guys go to the plate and they might see five, six, eight pitches in an at-bat, and maybe one of those is a really good pitch to hit that they can really drive the ball.

"When you're playing really good defenses in this league, we have to capitalize on those pitches that we can hit -- those really good, clean opportunities to create explosive plays, to score touchdowns -- because those sound defenses that are physical up front, that cover well, that don't blow coverages, when you get the looks you want, you really need to take advantage of it."

The Falcons need to hit some home runs if they hope to finish the season with a bang.