Falcons coordinators Steve Sarkisian and Marquand Manuel are fresh off working their first NFL games in their new positions.
Both will face major challenges when the Falcons (1-0) face the Green Bay Packers (1-0) at 8:30 p.m. Sunday in the regular-season opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I was really pleased with the communications,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of their debuts in Chicago on Sunday against the Bears. “(I wanted) to make sure that it went right down to the guys. Now, as we are getting into our second (game), another game week to get going, the game plan portion of that is really good. Communications-wise, clearly articulated plays (was the) part I was listening to the most on the headset. Both of them really were on it.”
Against the Packers, offensive coordinator Sarkisian must figure out how to get two-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones the ball and unleash the rushing attack against highly respected defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Defensive coordinator Manuel must come up with a plan to slow Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a two-time league MVP and six-time Pro Bowl player.
The Falcons scored 540 points last season, the seventh most in NFL history, to lead the league in scoring. Most folks were wondering how would Sarkisian put his stamp on the attack, which was led by Kyle Shanahan last season.
Against the Bears, the bootlegs were missing as he let quarterback Matt Ryan attack the Bears from the pocket.
“In that game, that aspect of our offense, we just didn’t think was going to be a huge component,” Sarkisian said. “It didn’t come that game, that’s not to say it won’t come in others.”
Sarkisian hasn’t scrapped the bootleg and rollouts all together.
“That is a piece to the offense that we value,” Sarkisian said. “But we also have other pieces of our offense that we really value.”
The Falcons were 1 of 3 inside Chicago’s 20-yard and had to settle for two field goals. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were held to 53 yards rushing on 20 carries. Jones was targeted on just five pass plays, as he caught four passes for 66 yards.
“We are a work in progress right now for sure,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think we are working hard on the practice field.”
Sarkisian concurs with Ryan.
“I think it’s progressing well,” Sarkisian said. “As I said in camp, things had gone really well, and there have been obstacles to overcome along the way, and there’s going to be more to come.
“I think each game is going to present something new, something different for us, but I think the good thing is that both Matt and I are really flexible.”
Sarkisian knows how important the rushing attack is to overall offensive scheme. Freeman is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. If the run game is stymied, defenses don’t have to honor the play-action fakes.
Sarkisian credited Chicago’s stout defensive front for thwarting the Falcons’ rushing attack.
“We are not accepting the fact that we didn’t run the ball the way we wanted to,” Sarkisian said. “In our run game, there are a lot of pieces that make our run game go. I felt like we were just off on each play at one spot or one issue or one thing.”
Sarkisian and his offense are getting ready for another difficult defensive front, which features defensive tackle Mike Daniels and outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry for the Packers.
“If you don’t run the ball against them they really start doubling on all of your wideouts and doubling on all of your guys, so you have to find a way to run the football and stay committed to it,” Sarkisian said. “So, that’s all a part of the plan.”
In the NFC Championship game in January, Jones had 12 targets. He caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns to help the Falcons advance to the Super Bowl in a 44-21 rout of the Packers.
In the regular season meeting Oct. 30, 2016, Jones had five targets and made three catches for 29 yards.
Sarkisian has been figuring out ways to get Jones more action.
“He knows the ball is going to come his way,” Sarkisian said. “I’d be foolish not to try to get him the ball. Every game is different, and we’re going to need him to be the special player that he is for us to have the kind of success that we want to have.”
Since Jones dominated single coverage in the championship game, the Falcons don’t expect Capers to leave him with only one defender much of the game.
“Like every week, he garners a lot of attention,” Sarkisian said. “They pay a lot of attention to him. I think a couple of times last year when he got single coverage, he made some pretty big plays against them. We’ll see what happens.”
Manuel played with the Packers in 2006 and has seen Rodgers up-close.
“One of the things that you have to understand is that if we jump offsides or if we don’t line up right away, he notices it,” Manuel said. “Most quarterbacks come out of the huddle looking to see what the defense is in. Aaron will run the play without the defense lined up.”
Manuel and the defensive staff tried to hammer that point home to the players leading to the game.
“We understand that you have to play 60-plus minutes with this guy,” Manuel said. “TV timeouts, you have to play. Substitutions, you have to be ready to play. … Every single (play) we have to get our cleats in the dirt and get ready to go.”