Old dogs learn new tricks

David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo

Denver Broncos head coach John Fox long has been known as a ground-and-pound guy, leaning heavily on his running backs such as Knowshon Moreno. But he proved something last week in their opener against Pittsburgh: He can open up the offense through the air, too.

By Charles Odum
AP Sports Writer

ATLANTA

John Fox and Mike Smith each emphasized power running games in their three years together in the NFC South.

They were perceived as conservative, strong-willed and unbending in their run-first convictions.

The stereotypes are changing as suddenly no one seemed to know what offensive philosophy to expect from either coach entering the 2012 season.

How would Fox, the former longtime Carolina Panthers coach beginning his second season in Denver, adjust to the dramatic addition of Peyton Manning?

Would Smith, entering his fifth season in Atlanta, allow new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to pump up the passing game with Matt Ryan?

Week 1 victories offered encouraging and exciting opening acts for each offense, setting the stage for the Broncos’ visit to Atlanta on Monday night.

Manning completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards with two touchdowns in last week’s 31-19 win over Pittsburgh. It was an important step in Manning’s comeback after a 20-month layoff for neck surgery. Then again, could anything less be expected from the four-time MVP?

Smith said Manning’s re-emergence leaves Atlanta’s defense with little margin for error.

“I think the most important thing is we have to play sound technique and make sure we’re in the right place because if you’re out of place by half a yard, you’re going to pay for it,” Smith said. “He has a very good understanding of how you’re trying to defend him. You give him pre-snap reads, he’s going to know where to go with the football.”

The Falcons, meanwhile, showed that their increased emphasis on Ryan’s passing game was no preseason mirage. Ryan completed 23 of 31 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 40-24 win at Kansas City.

The Falcons’ emphasis may have changed from Michael Turner’s running to Ryan’s passing, but Fox said he sees similarities to the Atlanta offenses he prepared game plans for twice a year from 2008-10.

“They utilized the no-huddle even when I was back there, but that is what makes them such a good offense,” Fox said. “They have the ability to get big and pound you and get small and stretch it that way. That’s what good offenses are capable of, and they’re definitely one of them.”

The 30-year-old Turner only had 11 carries for 32 yards against the Chiefs. Ryan had Atlanta’s only touchdown rushing. Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for only 20 carries.

Ryan said last week’s run-pass ratio did not set a mold for the season.

“I think it’s one of those cases where Kansas City is stout against the run,” Ryan said. “They’ve got some defensive tackles who are really good in their 3-4 scheme. We feel like it was to our advantage to throw last week.

“It’s one of those things I think we can do whatever we need to do. I think we’re talented that way, so if we’ve got to run it 50 times, we’ll run it 50 times. It’s just the way certain games shake out.”

As the Falcons embrace the no-huddle offense, second-year wide receiver Julio Jones is emerging as a top threat worthy of equal billing with Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Jones had six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns last week.

Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said Jones (6-3, 220) reminds him of a young Terrell Owens. Bailey said Jones can be even better than Owens.

“I was telling somebody he looks like a young T.O. when T.O. was big, strong and fast and youthful out there,” Bailey said. “He looks a lot like him, but I think his hands are better. He’s more polished at a younger age. I just think his upside is greater than what T.O.’s was.”

Thanks to the opener, the Falcons’ offense received a confidence boost after the 2011 season ended with a 24-2 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC wild-card game.

“For sure. You see how explosive we can be offensively,” center Todd McClure said.

White took a cautious approach when asked for his review of the win.

“Not to take anything away from the Kansas City Chiefs, but we’re going to play a lot of teams who are better on defense than those guys are,” White said. “It’s going to be a whole lot different this week.”

The Falcons are adjusting to the loss of starting cornerback Brent Grimes to a torn Achilles tendon. Smith said Dunta Robinson, who had been the nickel back, will start at right cornerback. Christopher Owens moves into the nickel spot. Asante Samuel is the left cornerback.

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