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Falcons have started breaking down the pistol, read-option attacks

Stashed somewhere in the Falcons’ facilities is a folder titled “Project P.R.O.”

That’s secret code for stopping the pistol and read-option — P.R.O. — offenses.

Like several teams around the NFL, the Falcons have spent additional time this offseason researching the pistol and read-option.

The Falcons have already been to various college programs and have hosted some college coaches. The entire defensive staff went to Clemson in March to study the Tigers version of the pistol and their read-option tactics.

The team had mixed results last season against the pistol and read-option. Carolina averaged 29 points in two games against the Falcons with quarterback Cam Newton triggering the Panthers’ read-option.

Atlanta contained Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III in the read-option and then knocked him out of the game on his only rush.

In the playoffs, the defense was ineffective against Seattle’s read-option and the team needed some late-game heroics from quarterback Matt Ryan and kicker Matt Bryant to advance.

One week later, the unit was gashed by San Francisco’s pistol attack in the NFC championship game, losing 28-24. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the defense gave up touchdown drives of 85, 76 and 82 yards as it struggled to stop the run and cover the tight end.

“Every offseason we go and visit coaches,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “That’s part of the offseason process that we go through. Coaches are always exchanging information and ideas.”

Clemson was a good choice to visit. Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd is an efficient operator of the pistol system. However, he rarely keeps the ball when they run read-option plays.

The Tigers’ offense set 101 school records last season.

“They do some very good things,” Smith said. “We always go out and we want to study people not only in the NFL, but we study people in college as well. We are always trying to be forward thinking.”

Smith, who was a college coach for 17 years (1982-98), enjoys the exchange of information between different levels of the game.

“I think that’s the great thing about the fraternity of coaching,” Smith said. “We were looking at all of the different things that they do, both offensively and defensively.”

During the 2013 season, the Falcons will face Seattle, San Francisco, Washington and Carolina twice, all of them subjects for Project P.R.O.

“We’re definitely crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s because the league is kind of coming to that, with these athletic quarterbacks,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “It’s kind of becoming a little bit like college in that aspect and some teams are multiple (threats). They do the regular, traditional-style offenses as well as going to the pistol and the read-option. That’s something that you really have to focus on.”

Information gathered from out on the coaching trail is already being passed on to the players.

“We’ve already put one day in the books, where it was pretty much just about the way we are defending the read-option,” Weatherspoon said. “We’re heading in that direction.”

The Falcons are hoping to make the pistol and read-option offenses go the way of the wildcat attack that the Miami Dolphins popularized in 2008. It took about a year of defensive study before teams caught up to wildcat and figured how to slow it down.

“The wildcat was rolling for a while,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Then I think it changed. There are some incredibly intelligent defensive coordinators and driven head coaches who are telling their defensive coordinators, ‘Figure it out and figure it out now.’ I think there will be a really interesting approach to how we are defending the systems that are in place.”

But he stopped short of predicting extinction for the pistol and read-option.

“It will be really interesting to see how things change going into the next year or two,” Dimitroff said.

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