The Atlanta Falcons Four Verticals Offense and Steven Jackson


May 29, 2013; Flowery Branch, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson (39) catches a pass during organized team activities at the Falcons Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When the Atlanta Falcons brought in their new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, last offseason, they brought in a whole new scheme.

That scheme is known as the Four Verticals. The Four Verticals offense is based on the spread offense in that it is run mainly out of the singleback , or shotgun formations with two-by-two receivers (two outside receivers and two slot receivers), but it can also be run out of the trips formation (two wide receivers and one slot receiver with a receiving tight end).

Last year, Atlanta ran a lot of pass plays–in fact 63% of all the plays the team called were pass plays. Whether it was the original gameplan or the coaches that were forced into it by the lack of a traditional running game does not matter, but what does matter is that it spawned one of the best seasons in Falcons history.

Michael Turner was a wrench in the gears of an otherwise ridiculously efficient passing team. I am not and will not ever take Turner’s importance to the team away from him. His power running style allowed Matt Ryan to learn in a trial by fire approach. In the end, though, he ended up being a workhorse running back on a team that didn’t need a workhorse.

His lack of pass catching chops led to his demise, which is the nature of the beast. His inability to catch the ball ended up making plays where Turner was on the field more predictable and therefore less effective. To add onto that, when the run became less effective, it led to plays that Turner actually ran the ball, and did not just pass protect,  being almost ineffective. The team was forced to start designing “extended handoff” plays for the running backs. This, in turn, led to the team realizing more and more that a running back like Jacquizz Rodgers, who could catch the ball, was essential for the teams continued success. That’s why the team picked up Steven Jackson.

When the team picked Steven Jackson up they did not just pick up a running back with the demeanor of a raging bull. They picked up a dual threat running back that was the missing piece to Koetters’ full Four Verticals scheme. Steven Jackson can do something Turner could never do. Steven Jackson can line up from either the backfield or slot receiver position. How will that affect the Falcons the most, you may ask? Well here it is:

In 2012, Dirk Koetter had Julio Jones and Roddy White lining up outside during Four Vertical plays, and Harry Douglas in the slot. You may now ask, “I thought there were two slot receivers in the Four Verticals offense?” There are, but Koetter didn’t need to bring in another slot receiver, he had Tony Gonzalez. Tony Gonzalez was running the second slot receivers routes during Four Vertical offensive plays.With Steven Jackson on the field that will all change.

What could easily happen is the team can opt to use Tony Gonzalez as the tight end/second slot receiver and have Steven Jackson in the backfield as the checkdown target. They could also opt not to put Tony in at all, and have the offensive line stop at the right tackle. Lining Steven Jackson up in the slot and having Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield as the checkdown target. Lastly Koetter could decide not to go with a running back on the field at all. He could simply line Gonzalez up in his natural tight end slot, and have either Steven Jackson or Jacquizz Rodgers line up in the slot. This is just some of the possibilities that are made possible with the base Four Verticals offense with four receivers and a pass catching tight end. All of this is made possible from adding just one player.

The expectations for the 2013 Atlanta Falcons should be nothing short of record-setting. The team could in all actuality be bringing even more dynamic offensive schemes to the NFL. One that comes to mind would be the Air Raid offense run by Texas Tech, where the Falcons current quarterbacks coach (Glenn Thomas) started his coaching journey as a Texas Tech student coach.

This offense is a variation of the Four Verticals offense that is based on stretching the field to set up mid, to deep level throwing attempts, and utilizing the no-huddle game tempo and the quarterback and receivers being on the same page. It actually fits the team so well I originally started this article by officially putting the Air Raid stamp on the team. On second thought I decided not to put the cart before the horse.

The point to be taken away from all of this is the potential the team has now that it might be the most complete passing offense in NFL history. Not many times before has one team held so many different receiving weapons. On top of that not many teams have a coaching staff willing to change their fundamental thought on large aspects of their team to ensure success. Only time will tell, but one thing is definite, and that is the show this team will put on will be one to watch.