Falcons look to depend more on wide receivers

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It’s a rare receiver who catches 100 balls and then returns the next season feeling as if he has something significant to improve upon.

But on Thursday Falcons wide receiver Roddy White himself referenced his biggest shortcoming in 2011.

“I led the league in drops last year, so I got to fix that problem,” said White, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver who earned his fourth straight Pro-Bowl appearance in 2011. “There’s always things in your game you can fix, especially when it comes to route-running. I talk to coach (and) if he doesn’t like what I’m doing on certain routes, I try to change it up. So that’s what I’m doing right now and I’m just trying to get better.”

With White and the trade to move up and select Julio Jones sixth overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Falcons expected to have a more explosive offense going into last season. It didn’t quite end up the way they had hoped, even the Falcons ranked seventh in the league in scoring at 25.1 points per game.

This year, with Dirk Koetter taking over as offensive coordinator for Mike Mularkey, who departed to become head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Falcons hope to make that jump and the wide receivers – White and Jones, in particular – represent a big part of that.

One untapped facet of the offensive game, as far as the Falcons are concerned, is the screen pass, which was almost completely absent from Mularkey’s offseason. Jones in particular can be more of a threat when used both in the screen game and on deep routes.

“I think that when you’re attacking a defense at different levels, whether you’re doing it with the same guys or different guys, it makes you defend the whole entire field,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “In terms of exactly what plays we’re going to use to do that, that’s what we’re working on in camp right now. We’ve emphasized certain things that we think are the strengths of our team and we’ll continue to evaluate that as we go through training camp.”

Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez spoke last week of how Koetter’s offense is designed to showcase the players’ skills, not to glorify a system — seemingly an implicit critique of Mularkey. Quarterback Matt Ryan also said this week that Koetter’s offense showcases players’ talents and White reiterated that on Thursday.

“He just finds ways to get us all the ball,” White said of Koetter. “He knows what we can do. He stepped in and he’s watched the film and he puts us in position to make plays and that’s all you can ask the OC.”

Of Jones, who posted 959 yards and eight touchdowns on 54 catches in ‘11, White said, “He’s going to be real good this year. I mean really, really special.”

On Thursday, Jones enumerated the factors that held back his production last season as a rookie, as good as it was: the lack of rookie camp, offseason team activities and mini-camp because of the lockout; offseason foot surgery and then a hamstring injury to start the season. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Jones said “the sky’s the limit” as far as the potential of the Falcons’ wide receivers corps.

“I don’t think I did that great last year,” Jones said. “I started coming on at the end because me and Matt stated getting our timing down and everything. I felt really good with the offense. It just carried over. I still feel great about everything we’re doing. It’s nothing different to me.”

Jones essentially equaled 75 percent of White’s production in yards with roughly half the catches. That’s where the Falcons see so much potential room for improvement – more catches by Jones and fewer drops by White. White was targeted 180 times last season and caught 55.6 percent of the passes thrown his way. In comparison, another receiver at his level, New England’s Wes Welker, was targeted 173 times but caught 70.5 percent of the balls thrown to him.

“There’s no doubt when you’re at the top of a statistic that you don’t want to be at the top of, it’s going to motivate you,” Smith said, “and Roddy’s a very proud guy and he knows what the statistics laid out last year. He’s a guy who’s going to work at it. There’s going to be drops. I’m not trying to defend any of our players, but there’s going to be drops. The more targets you have, the more opportunities you’re going to have to catch the ball or drop it, but it’s good that Roddy is taking a good hard look at what he’s got to improve on and he feels that’s an area he’s definitely got to address.”