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Charting The Falcons' Play-Calling, Aug. 13: An Eye On Mularkey's Creativity

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Let's chart Mike Mularkey's playcalling inventiveness.

ATLANTA - AUGUST 13:  Roddy White #84 of the Atlanta Falcons pulls in this reception against the Kansas City Chiefs at Georgia Dome on August 13 2010 in Atlanta Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA - AUGUST 13: Roddy White #84 of the Atlanta Falcons pulls in this reception against the Kansas City Chiefs at Georgia Dome on August 13 2010 in Atlanta Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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This offseason, Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey promised us a bit more creativity in his play calling for the Falcons in 2010.  I find the prospect both exciting and frightening.  Exciting because he really does need to mix things up some more-we need to get our backs involved in the passing game for more than just blocking, and their attempts at utilizing the Dirty Bird (or Wild-Cat, for those of you who prefer to call it that) are among the most vanilla in the league and have resulted in very little success.  It's frightening because the very last thing we want to see are more end-arounds to Eric Weems.

Well, even though it's preseason, I decided to call him out on this and I'm going to chart his play-calling from the Preseason opener.  Naturally, I'm not expecting him to be calling any flea-flickers or double reverses at this point-teams definitely prefer to save their bag of tricks for the games that matter.  But with Matt Ryan in his third year in the system and our first chance to see the 2010 Falcons, I couldn't resist the opportunity.  I'll be doing this occasionally during the season as well.

Again, this is preseason, so the playbook just isn't going to open up like it will during the regular season.  There's a lot of players on the field who aren't regular parts of the rotation and haven't digested the whole thing yet.  Whenever coaches have a big trick up their sleeve, they certainly don't want it to get on film until the games really matter.  Sometimes gadgets can increase the risks of injuries if players have different assignments than normal, so there's another good reason we won't see them in preseason.  Consider this more of a preview for what these charts might look like during the season.

Disclaimer:  Having no affiliation with the Falcons (I'm sure they're just still processing my resumé), I have no idea what they call their individual plays.  As a result, my names for them are very Madden-ised.

First Quarter, 14:51:

1st and 10, ATL 33:   Weak I-Formation.  Simple hand-off to Turner plunging into the A-Gap gets 7 yards, Mughelli seals off the backside.  Great job McClure, Dahl, and Blalock all to get a strong push off the line.

2nd and 3, ATL 40:  Weak I again-Tight End splits wide but then motions back to the line.  Same play call as before, only with the tight end on the opposite end.  This play was a thing of beauty-Turner was supposed to go right, but Finneran blocks down on a 'backer, Baker seals off Dorsey, and there was a huge hole on the left side.  Dahl just plowed his first man over and engaged Corey Mays.  Blalock was chugging downfield just looking for someone to block-this could very easily have been a TD.

1st and 10, ATL 49:  Single back, Twins right.  I like this formation, with the two tight ends on the opposite end from the receivers, leaving the defense unsure who's going out and who is staying in to block.  Matt's looking for TG who is running a curl to the left, and he misses Weems running a cross, while Roddy is on a deep slant that doesn't have time to develop as Clabo whiffs on his block, so Ryan finds Turner for the outlet.  We were promised that we'd see more of Turner catching balls, too.

2nd and 4, KC 45:  Weak I Tight.  A simple HB Lead- Feed the Hoss.  Turner follows Mughelli through to the line, and Harvey Dahl once again gets a key block to spring this 10 yard run.  (Also, Dahl gets a little extra shove in after the play ends; the man is borderline dirty and I love it!)

1st and 10, KC 35:  Single back, Twins left, but Roddy motions over to the right create a bunch formation off the right tackle.  Hand-off to Snelling generates three yards and the proverbial cloud of dust.

(Chiefs jump offsides for 5 yard penalty)

2nd and 2, KC 27:  Weak I, Tight.  This was a well executed lead draw that gets Snelling eight yards.

1st and 10, KC 19:  I-Pro (for clarity, I'm calling it Pro when it's a standard I with the HB lined up directly behind the FB).  Snelling takes this left off-tackle.  The Chiefs were able to push back the Falcons line here, but Snelling finds a little crease and then drives through to the ground to pick up four yards.

2nd and 6, KC 15:  Weak I Tight.  At this point, I'm liking how even the formations aren't repetitive.  This is another HB lead that doesn't do much, and Turner pushes through for three yards.

3rd and 3, KC 12:  Gun Bunch Right.  First third down of the day leads to the first shotgun formation.  HB toss right for no gain.  At first I really wanted to blame the play call, but the truth is that this would have worked had it been executed better.  The purpose of any toss or pitch play is to move the ball laterally before the defense has time to react.  Two things went wrong with this-the first is that Jason Snelling didn't really secure the ball as quickly as he could have, slowing down his speed working outside.  The second is that Harvey Dahl gets completely victimized by Mike Vrabel, who ultimately made the tackle.  I'm not sure if Vrabel was Dahl's man-it didn't appear as though he was trying to engage him, and you had McClure and Blalock both engaged on the same man weakside who was completely out of the way.  Regardless, poorly executed.

DRIVE RECAP:  Introducing the Kordell Stewart Meter! In honor of Mike Mularkey's offense built around Slash, we'll rate Falcons' drives on a 1-5 scale.  The Falcons' first drive goes 50 yards on ten plays and results in a field goal.  It was very rush-heavy, with only one passing play, but we did mix up the running plays with some leads, some dives, and a pitch at the end. 2 KORDELL STEWARTS

First Quarter, 06:58

1st and 10, ATL 35:  Single back, three wide (yet another pre-snap look already).  Hand off to Snelling, who just runs into the back of Harvey Dahl and the pile refuses to move for no gain.

2nd and 10, ATL 35:  Single back, three wide.  Play action roll-out.  The timing is good for the play action, after establishing the Falcons' ability and willingness to run.  Finneran went on the deep cross, Weems on the corner route, and Roddy seems to have just run a quick hitch.  Roddy drops the pass, but I can't entirely blame him because Matt fired it from about 5 yards away and there was a defender right on his back.

3rd and 10, ATL 35:  Shotgun, four receivers, but Eric Weems lines up in the backfield.  He gets a little chip block before going out on the flat while Smith stays in to block.  Roddy goes on a fly route, while Gonzalez's route might have been a deep curl, but essentially was just him clearing out a spot behind the linebackers and past the first down marker to make the catch.

1st and 10, KC 49:  Singleback three wide.  This might not have been Mularkey's play call, as they lined up with no huddle, so I don't know if Ryan makes these play calls or not.  Matt appears to audible, but he might just have calling the play on the line.  It's a simple handoff to Snelling up the middle.  It doesn't look like much happened, since Snelling just runs into the pile and goes down, but we got a great push off the line of scrimmage and this ends up going for five yards.

2nd and 5, KC 44:  Shotgun, trips left.  This was again no huddle.  Ryan pitches out left for Snelling-this time Snelling catches the pitch cleanly and tucks it away quickly.  This was definitely a poorly timed play call-the safeties had crept up into the box, and there was just too many bodies on the left side.  Blalock hit the only man he could get to, and that man fell over into the path of Baker, who didn't end up doing anything on this play, and the numbers won out for KC as Snelling lost three yards.

3rd and 8, KC 47:  Shotgun.  Weems goes in motion left to right.  Roddy seems to have on an out route, with Weems on some sort of double move while Finneran was on a go route.  Once again, TG is the man who catches the ball, faking an out route then running a come back, and he carries the ball over the first down marker.

1st and 10, KC 35:  Shotgun, empty backfield.  WR screen for Roddy.  Can't blame this on anyone but Roddy, who started to look downfield before he caught the ball.  This was very nicely set up, too-Clabo had gotten outside in front of Roddy and had a block lined up, and Snelling was putting a good block on his man on the corner to seal the edge, and the rest of the Chiefs were too far behind to make an immediate difference.  C'mon, Roddy!

2nd and 10, KC 35:  Shotgun, empty.  No huddle again.  It really looks like Ryan makes this call on the line, but with radio helmets and all that fancy stuff (get off my lawn, you kids!), it's hard to say exactly where the calls are coming from.  Of course, this ended up in a false start penalty, after which the Falcons huddled up.

2nd and 15, KC 40:  Shotgun, two tight ends.  Couldn't make out the routes on this one-Gonzalez was on some sort of comeback, but Matt didn't have much time and just throws it out of bounds.

3rd and 15, KC 40:  Shotgun, Split backfield.  KC comes with a strong blitz, and neither of the backs stayed into block, so Matt had to step up and scramble, and he got five yards on it, setting up a 53 yard field goal.  (I really hope we're not in a situation this year where we're not confident we can make 53 yard field goals reasonably often).

DRIVE RECAP:  10 plays, 3 rush, 6 pass plus FGA.  There's some good ideas in here, like the WR screen for Roddy (which should have worked!) and the utilization of the no huddle, but the last play call was terribly timed as Ryan only had 5 men in to block against the blitz on 3rd and 15. 2 KORDELL STEWARTS

First Quarter, 2:05

1st and 10, KC 40:  I Pro, tight.  I guess this is officially the first play with the second unit, as Redman comes in, and Turner is done for the night, even though Roddy White and most of the O line are still playing.  This is just a simple HB lead where the timing got fouled up-hole was there for Ovie but McClure couldn't stay on his block long enough for Snelling to gain anything.

(Falcons penalized 5 yards for a false start)

2nd and 15, KC 40:   Singleback, bunch right.  Redman is looking for Eric Weems, who was in to block before slipping out on the flat, but he's hit on the throw, and it falls incomplete.

3rd and 15, KC 40: Shotgun, spread.  This play was a mess.  I think it was meant to be a screen, but the RB (Nance, I believe) gets tripped up in traffic.  Redman stares out to the left side the whole waiting, but there aren't any other receivers on that end because they were clearing it out.  Chris actually had time and space to hit Roddy White on a crossing route, but he was looking for the screen and ending up getting flagged for intentional grounding.  Koenen came in to punt for the first time today.

DRIVE RECAP:  4 plays, 1 rush, 2 pass, 1 punt.  Falcons go three and out here.  I'm a big fan of screen plays, but the failure of that play and the fact that the Falcons go three and out aren't enough to salvage even a single Kordell Stewart here.  Sorry, Slash.  0 KORDELL STEWARTS.

2nd Quarter, 12:37

1st and 10, ATL 43:  Weak I.  Play action works beautifully here, as Roddy runs a deep out and beats his man for 22 yards.  Roddy was the first read all the way, here-TE is  working a deep cross, and Finneran was running what might have been a deep slant opposite.  He also had Snelling up the middle for an outlet.

1st and 10, KC 35:  Weak I Twins.  At first glance, this looks like it's supposed to go  C Gap (off tackle) but that's just how it developed as no holes opened up anywhere.  It was really just a center HB lead, and Snelling tried to stretch it out.

2nd and 9, KC 34:  Weak I.  This play lined Mughelli up in the slot, but he motioned back into the backfield for essentially the same look.  It was a simple HB Sweep, actually designed to go to the outside, since the O-Line was pulling right.  This play was notably because of two very big hits.  Snelling lowers his shoulder and just lifts Andy Studebaker off his feet, but then was hit hard by a KC linebacker right after.  The hilarious part is that Studebaker gets partial credit for the tackle.

3rd and 5, KC 30:  Shotgun, spread.  I'm not sure who Redman's hot read here was, but I think it might have been Justin Peele on short crossing route.  Regardless, he's very quickly pressured and hit, and he's forced to dump it off to Antoine Smith in the flat, who actually loses two yards.  This leads to another missed field goal, and I really hope that we're not resigned to another year of kicking struggles.

DRIVE RECAP:  I like that this drive opened up with a play action pass, and that play worked exceptionally, but there's not much else to say about this drive.  1 KORDELL STEWART.

3rd Quarter, 09:26

DRIVE OF THE GAME:  I won't break down most of the second half, since it's almost entirely third string just getting in their snaps, but the Falcons' long scoring drive deserves to be charted.

1st and 10, ATL 19:  I Form Pro, Single Wide.  Play Action roll out.  Parker-Wilson doesn't even have time to scan the field as there is a man in his face as soon as he turns back around, so he just throws this away.  With just a little more time, he could have hit Dan Klecko in the flat (I'm always fan of putting fullbacks in the flats)

There was a quick hand off to Nance, but KC jumped offsides.

2nd and 5, ATL 24:  Strong I.  Initial look was singleback spread, but Klecko motions into the backfield.  Falcons send everyone out into the pass pattern, with Klecko in the flat, Nance running a dig across the middle, Bergeron and Zinger both run curls.  Troy makes the catch for 10 yards.  A well timed call, here, with the Chiefs only sending 4 rushers.

1st and 10, ATL 34:  I-Pro Big.  HB lead here, but it's messed up by the pulling guard stepping on John's foot, throwing the timing off and getting the ball to Nance too late.  The hole closed before he could reach it, and he lost a yard.

2nd and 11, ATL 33:  Weak I Formation.  Antoine Smith stays in to block, letting Klecko leak out into the flat.  Always nice to have that dump off option.  This one is intended all the way for Michael Palmer, who runs a out route that is well covered and incomplete.

3rd and 11, ATL 33:  Shotgun, Full backfield.  This time Klecko stays in to block with Antoine Smith getting out into the flat.  Troy Bergeron runs a curl route, while Kerry Meier runs either deep out or a deep hitch on the sideline.  Meier makes the grab 16 yards downfield.  (this leads to an anecdote about how Kerry Meier never wears gloves.  The Falcons' answer to Raw Dog?)

1st and 10, ATL 49:  Singleback.  Antoine Smith plunges directly into the A gap for for a four yards.

2nd and 6, KC 47:  Singleback, 3 wide.  A good gauge for aggressive in play-calling is always to see what happens on second and manageable.  In this case, the call is just to send Antoine Smith into the A gap once again, picking up only two yards.  Apparently, not very aggressive at all.

3rd and 4, KC 45: Shotgun, trips left.  This is actually a rather intricate passing pattern, even though the Falcons didn't send anyone deep.  You've got guys staggered at different depths but running similar routes here.  Kerry Meier is the odd man out (no pun intended) as he runs a quick out on the right side.    Nance leaks out over the middle, coming in front of the crossing route that's being run by Troy Bergeron.  Michael Palmer runs a deeper cross, putting him at the farthest tier.  The pass ends up going to Andy Strickland, who just makes a quick dig and is essentially trailing along behind the route that Bergeron is running.  This makes it easy for the QB, since he's got three, maybe four routes easily within his field of vision, but it requires a bit of precision on the part of the receivers.  Strickland makes a nice grab to pick up the first.

1st and 10, KC 39:  Single back, bunch left.  This was basically a max protect play, with only two receivers actually running routes.  This ran into the eternal bane of max protect plays-good pass coverage.  Fortunately, Parker-Wilson just tucks it and scrambles for a couple of yards.

2nd and 8, KC 37:  I-Form Pro.  HB screen to Nance.  I love the timing of this call.  Second and long-ish, but not so long that there's a ton of ground to pick up.  Falcons run it nicely, getting him outside with three blockers ahead of him and turn it into a 9 yard gain.

1st and 10, KC 28:  Weak I.  Starts off as Singleback with three wide, but Klecko (I really just like saying his name) motions back into the backfield.  A little play action here, but Wilson doesn't really sell it, and he ends up dumping it off to Nance who drops it.

2nd and 10, KC 28:  Weak I, Twins left.  A simple HB lead, this one going off tackle.  Antoine Smith only picks up a couple of yards on this as the Chiefs sniff this out, and the blocking on the back end broke down.

3rd and 8, KC 26:  Shotgun, Trips left.  It was time for something creative, as we've reached another third down on this drive.  Of course, this play works despite not having been especially creative.  Nance slips out and runs a shallow cross, and the man supposed to be covering him was picked by Bergeron coming the other way.  Nance goes all the way to the 1, but a questionable holding call brings it back to the 20.

3rd and 2 KC 20:  I Pro, big.  Falcons just lined up here and ran a quick counter play, which did exactly what it was meant to, and got the first down and a couple more.

1st and 10, KC 16:  I Pro.  This is just a basic HB sweep, heading around off tackle with the whole line pulling left.  It works very well, with the key blocks being made by Keith Zinger, Joe Hawley, and Mike Johnson.  Antoine Smith zips right through the hole for 7 yards.

2nd and 3, KC 9:  Full House Backfield.  First time we've seen this formation used, with the tight end and three backs.  This also works well, as Dan Klecko (Funny name.  Like Turd Ferguson) seals off the edge for Antoine Smith to knife down to the 2 yard line.

1st and goal, KC 2:  Goal Line package.  The first call here is an off-tackle run by Nance that gets nothing.

2nd and goal, KC 2:  For those of you who watched this, they call this play the "Epic Network Fail," as the entire play was run and completed while home viewers and DVR subscribers viewed a Chrysler commercial.  The good news is that it was not the scoring play, as Nance picks up 1 yard.

3rd and goal, KC 1:  Goal-line package.  (Hey, speaking of Burt Reynolds...) This is supposed to be a HB lead to the right, but KC sealed it up nicely.  Nance does a good job of waiting and reading the hole, and Jose Valdez, on the right side of the line, does a great job of just bulling his way downfield and clearing out room for Nance to score the touchdown.  Falcons lead, 17-3.

DRIVE RECAP:  19 plays,  9 pass, 10 rush.  Good working mixing in the run and pass, and great execution by the Falcons to convert their third down opportunities.  The key play on this drive was one of the most vanilla play calls, as Nance catches a short pass on 3rd and 8 and springs free.  The best play call is probably the 3rd and four, with multiple-tiered routes, but even that wasn't very creative.  Still, results count somewhat.  2 KORDELL STEWARTS.

Summary:  A very well played game.  The play calling was well mixed, with 34 rushes against 32 pass plays.  There wasn't much innovation, most of the pass patterns were very vanilla, and there was nothing more exciting that a couple of screen plays.  Still, it's only preseason, and the Falcons executed their offense very well overall.

Feedback is  very welcome.  Too long?  Too short?  Was I completely wrong about everything?  Tell me so we can improve future editions of this feature!

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.