By STEVE WYCHE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/23/06
Flowery Branch â€” Game films reveal that the option offense re-introduced to the NFL by the Falcons â€” and run with great success â€” isn't used all that often.
Atlanta's new wrinkle has helped the NFL's top rushing offense becoming even scarier on the ground, churning out 558 total yards in season-opening victories over Carolina and Tampa Bay.
"It's exciting, especially as something new, like what we showed," offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. "When you first teach it and the players are learning it, they're trying to figure out, 'Where are they going with this?' To see it come to fruition like it did is a confidence booster for everybody. It's like, 'Yeah, this is an element to our offense the other team doesn't know about as much.' "
What Knapp stresses is that the option is an element to the offense, not the basis of it. Films of the Falcons' victories showed Atlanta ran the option eight times â€” twice at Carolina, six times against Tampa Bay.
The premise of the concept is that quarterback Michael Vick takes the snap 5-7 yards behind the center out of the shotgun formation. He puts the ball in the gut of Warrick Dunn or Jerious Norwood and gives it to the running back if the unblocked defensive end doesn't collapse into a hole being created by the offensive line.
If Vick sees the defensive end crash inside to tackle Dunn or Norwood, he pulls the ball out and dashes to the opening created on the edge by the defensive end's reaction.
"To be able to be in space and make a read on the defensive end puts some pressure on them," Vick said. "It's something that poses a lot of problems for our opposition. That can be very deflating to a defense at times when you can't stop the run or contain me."
Most of the yards gained by Dunn and Vick, the team's leading rushers, have come on designed runs or Vick pulling it down on pass plays.
"We basically added one play to our offense," Vick said.
The twist to what Knapp said is a negative connotation to the term "option," is that Atlanta runs it out of the shotgun formation, not out of the I, wishbone or split-backs veer. That alleviates the pounding a quarterback takes, Knapp said.
In the first two games, Vick has ended nearly all of his runs by diving to the ground head first â€” Knapp preaches that in order to avoid a big hit â€” or by running out of bounds. A review of Vick's runs against Tampa Bay show him getting firmly tackled one time in 14 carries. He finished with 127 yards. Dunn, the NFL's leading rusher, had 134 on 21 carries.
"This isn't Nebraska," Vick said. "Nebraska never ran this out of the 'gun."
It might not be Nebraska, but the idea came from college.
During some down time at the end of last season, Knapp said he watched the Sugar Bowl between West Virginia and Georgia. West Virginia ran a spread offense that included a heavy dose of option reads out of the shotgun that had Georgia undone.
A light went on.
Knapp, who came under fire last season for his play calling and usage of Vick, then called on his fellow offensive coaches to do more research on other college teams that ran similar systems. They watched tape of Missouri, Ohio State, Texas and Florida, then called coaches there. Florida's staff met with the Falcons this summer, and ideas were exchanged.
"It was an outside-the-box thought process," Knapp said. "I wasn't able to find that view in the professional level. I had to go outside my norm and understand the guy we're working with is different than most quarterbacks in this league.
"It just so happens that there are a lot more mobile quarterbacks playing the game at the college level. There were some good schemes out there in college for us to think outside the box. Let's study that and not take their offense and put it in ours, but let's figure out how can we adapt that to what we do on offense and apply it to what we do without changing our mind-set too much. That's what we've done."
Knapp said that at some point, defenses eventually would catch on. Changing formations and tendencies will allow them to stay ahead of game for a while, but there are no plans to abandon the option overall.
That's because of the Falcons' personnel.
Vick, Dunn and Norwood provide an advantage to where even if a defense does everything it can to schematically stop it on a given play, all three players have the elusiveness to make defenders miss â€” especially since the play is run from the shotgun, which gives them open space to maneuver.
"When you have an athlete like Mike who can make guys miss and get to the edge, it works," Dunn said. "Then you have to have the right running back to really make it work and we have that. Everybody can't run it. You may have a quarterback who can run it but not the back. Or you might have the back but not the quarterback. It's a special dimension that we have."