After two straight years of early playoff exits and questions surrounding both sides of the ball, the Atlanta Falcons finally appear to be a formidable force, flying high to a league-best 8-0 record through nine weeks of the season. A big reason for their success is the play of Matt Ryan and the offense, which has been producing on average 27.5 points per game through a lot of big plays off play action.

Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh would be proud of Ryan’s play-action execution, which Walsh called the “single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense” at a coaching seminar many years ago. The eye-popping numbers Ryan has registered are prime evidence:¬† 117.8 quarterback rating and 8.5 yards per attempt.

The play-action passes have come in different ways and one of them — a deep crossing route to Roddy White — was used against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.

Lined up under center at the Cowboys’ 44-yard line with “12″ personnel (1 back, 1 tight end), Ryan clicked his heel to signal a motion to tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was lined up just inside the numbers on the wide side (“field”) of the field. The motion brought Gonzalez to a wing alignment near the formation, and more importantly it forced the Cowboys to drop another defender — a safety — down to create an eight-man box to account for the power running game from their base defense.

In an interview with American Football Monthly magazine at the noted coaching seminar, Walsh touched on the ideal situation to attempt a play action pass.

BW: Typically the play-pass is thrown between the thirty-yard lines. Play-passes work best when the opposing team is in their base defensive mode and you can anticipate those defenses that you’ve seen through your scouting preparation. You would prefer play-passes against the zone. although that is not a specific requirement. There are still cases where man-to-man defenders will he fooled and will take their eye off of their assigned coverage and the receiver can come out wide open. So, if you do have a man-to-man coverage, you have a chance to make a big play. But, typically you are looking to beat a zone defense because the hooking receivers can get open behind and between the linebackers.

Because of the additional defender in the box, the Falcons were in an ideal situation: they knew what the coverage was going to be — either Cover 1 (man) or Cover 3 (zone) — and regardless of which it was, the Falcons knew they had the athletes to beat it.

The Cowboys’ call was Cover 3, a four-under, three-deep zone coverage that saw the deep three defenders split the field into thirds. This was what the Falcons had hoped for simply because it was going to be a three-man route combination that featured former first-round draft pick Julio Jones drawing the deep corner and safety to him with a clear-out route while White was going to run a deep cross — some call this an “over” route — into the middle of the field and, to use Walsh’s words, “get open behind (and between) the linebackers”. If Jones or White weren’t open, Ryan had a short route — a shoot by the tailback¬† — for the outlet.

As Ryan executed the play-fake, Jones took an outside release and ran a vertical route to clear out the cornerback responsible for the deep third, and (hopefully) draw the attention of the deep free safety in the middle of the field. While doing this, White took a vertical stem before breaking off his route toward the middle, getting behind the linebackers and in front of the deep safety.

With the shoot route into the flats run by the tailback, the deep safety who dropped down into the box was forced to account for him, leaving a vacant zone where Ryan found White for the big catch and yet another first down.

The catch went for 20 yards, adding to Ryan’s great great play-action statistics and execution. The call was simply another aggressive one on an early down by first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who’s the most aggressive coordinator on first down in the league. Ryan has thrived under Koetter’s direction of the offense and quieted critics en route to what may be an MVP season for the Boston College product.