Entering Year 2, OC Steve Sarkisian ready to unleash Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A play still eats at Steve Sarkisian. It's not the one most people would think.

The Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator pointed to last October's 23-17 home defeat to the Buffalo Bills, when the Falcons lost receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu midway through the game. The final play featured a fourth-and-1 play-fake to Tevin Coleman from the Bills' 10-yard line. Matt Ryan looked Justin Hardy's way first, then went across the field to Taylor Gabriel. Ryan's pass sailed incomplete with 44 seconds left despite the Bills having 10 defenders.

Sarkisian had designed the play for Jones entering the game. He expected Sanu to be a part of it, too.

"It was a good reminder to me it's not always about the plays. It's also about the players and making sure that we're putting our best players in position to be successful," Sarkisian reflected. "In that moment looking back, we still have a healthy Devonta Freeman. We still have a healthy Tevin Coleman. And those guys didn't get an opportunity to touch the ball at a critical moment of a game: the closing moments of a game.

"Hindsight's 20/20. Yeah, next time, probably one of those two guys, somewhere in that scenario, is going to get their chance to convert to keep a drive alive."

That's not to say Sarkisian isn't bothered by what happened the last time his offense was on the field. Remember, the Falcons had four chances to advance to the NFC Championship Game but failed in a 15-10 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. The last of those plays was about getting the ball in the hands of his top playmaker -- Jones -- and not about the playcall itself.

It still didn't work.

Ryan's fourth-down rollout from the Eagles' 2 couldn't be executed as planned as Jones slipped or got pushed in the end zone, and Ryan's throw to him under duress sailed incomplete. The Eagles, who defended well, claimed they knew it was coming.

"At the end of the day, there are really good coaches in this league, there's really good veteran players -- smart players -- and very rarely do you run plays that they just have no idea is coming," Sarkisian said. "A lot of what you try to do is to get your players in position to be successful. We felt like we came up with a play there at the very end that got, in our opinion, our best player -- if not the [NFL's] best player -- in a one-on-one situation with a chance to win the game to go on to the next round.

"Whether they knew Matt was rolling out or not, at the end of the day we got a really cool opportunity. It didn't play out the way we wanted, so we've got to get back to work, which is what we've been doing."

The peaks and valleys of last season are something Sarkisian has learned from as he approaches Year 2 directing the Falcons' offense. So much was made of how Sarkisian's predecessor, Kyle Shanahan, appeared to struggle during his first season as the Falcons' playcaller only to guide the league's highest-scoring offense (33.8 points per game) all the way to the Super Bowl in Year 2.

Maybe Sarkisian will experience the same type of progression. He already feels like the growth is "night and day" from last season to now.

"I think the biggest thing for me is just overall comfort level," Sarkisian said. "When I came in a year ago, it was learning the system that was in place. It was learning the players that were in place. In Year 2, I have a year into the system. Now [I] can make some of the tweaks that I feel like are needed for this offense to continue to grow.

"I've got a really good understanding of every player and the things that they're really good at, the things that maybe they need to work on, the things that I would be wrong putting them in position to do. I think all of those things just put me in a much different level of comfort, where you just feel good every day walking in."

Said head coach Dan Quinn: "He's called plays for a long time before, but not in this system with this team with these players. So for him to know real clear how to feature and how to use it, and going through the entire offseason and the audit of stuff, that part has been pretty cool. ... Yeah, I would say you can certainly make a jump as a coach, too. I certainly did as a head coach."

Sarkisian also understands that critics will dissect his every move, particularly given the talent at his disposal. Not too many offenses can boast a one-time MVP in Ryan, a five-time Pro Bowler in Jones and a running back combo like Freeman and Coleman. Sprinkle in the explosive ability of rookie wideout Calvin Ridley, the physicality of Sanu and the expected improvement of tight end Austin Hooper and you have a fearsome group -- provided the offensive line does its part and enjoys continuity.

On paper, the Falcons had all the tools to be explosive last season yet saw their scoring dip to 22.1 points per game. Outsiders, naturally, placed much of the blame on Sarkisian.

How does he handle such criticism?

"The same way I handle praise," Sarkisian said. "It's an external factor. If I'm relying on external factors to be motivators, that's a slippery slope. You have to recognize it comes with the territory, but it shouldn't define you. And it shouldn't define how you approach every single day.

"I chose this profession. I chose this job, and I love what I get to do. But part of choosing it, certain things come with the territory. And you have to recognize it."

The marriage between Sarkisian and Ryan is key to the big picture. It's a relationship that will be aided by the arrival of veteran assistant Greg Knapp as quarterbacks coach.

"I think at the end of the day, it's us being really wired in mentally in-game, where he can almost anticipate playcalls that are coming," Sarkisian said of the next step with Ryan. "And he understands why those playcalls are coming and what they're for. ... We'll take a significant jump just between Matt and I. He's starting to understand my personality of how I call it, and I'm understanding his personality of what he likes in specific situations."

Naturally, Sarkisian will proceed with more playcall variety in an offense that relies on establishing the run of the outside zone blocking scheme to set up play-action. Maybe he'll copy some of the Eagles' run-pass options, knowing Ryan has the athleticism to pull them off. Maybe he'll use Freeman and Coleman together more often. Maybe he'll dial up more fades to Jones in scoring situations, or more power plays behind a fullback in short-yardage scenarios. Whatever the case, Sarkisian certainly isn't going to divulge his full arsenal to the public before he shows it off to opposing defenses beginning in September.

The bottom line is, the Falcons have to score more touchdowns, in and out of the red zone. They ranked 23rd in red zone offense last season, converting 27 of 54 attempts. Jones had just one red zone touchdown on 18 targets, and Ryan ranked 29th with a 45.7 red zone completion percentage thanks in part to inadequate protection and dropped passes. Had the Falcons converted six more touchdowns, the red zone offense would have ranked in the top five.

And as Sarkisian pointed out, the Falcons were third in the league in explosive plays (16-plus-yard passes; 12-plus-yard runs) but in the middle of the pack in touchdowns of 25-plus yards.

"To be good in this league, you have to score points," Sarkisian said. "It's not always about the yards or the third-down conversions or the explosive plays. It's the final score that's the stat that matters the most. We need to be able to do our part to make that factor go up."

Sarkisian feels like he's in a better place mentally to fulfill his football duties with his personal life in order. He spoke freely before last season about his bout with alcoholism, a battle he continues to fight.

"Life is awesome. I love it," Sarkisian said. "I love living in Atlanta. I love being here. Without the work that I've put in in my personal life, none of this stuff professionally would have even been an opportunity. And the first person I talk to is God. He's probably my best friend."

Sarkisian also leans on support from his three children, whom you'll often catch him talking to via FaceTime prior to kickoff on game days.

"I'm always FaceTiming my kids before games, because at the end of the day, my kids -- win, lose, draw -- I know they love me," Sarkisian said. "So I want to make sure that they know I love them. A lot of times in our profession, so much goes into the work we do and here's game day. I want them to know right before kickoff I still think about them, and I think that's important."