FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One couldn't help but notice the practice time Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan put in with Julio Jones and his other top targets last week, trying to make sure everything was in sync in the red zone.
The offense ran through various rub routes, or picks plays, with the receivers working in unison so Ryan could have an open man. Starting cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, aligned right, pressed Jones and Mohamed Sanu, respectively, giving the offense a good look at man-to-man coverage while they practiced those rub routes.
The additional session wouldn't have seemed abnormal had it happened at any other time throughout practice. What made it more noticeable was that it occurred for 10 minutes after practice had concluded.
A couple of days later, the offense once again was down in the red zone for an extra 10 minutes following practice. This time, Ryan worked on throwing fades to Jones, Sanu and the others.
Coach Dan Quinn explained why.
"So it's part of our 'Plan D' program, and what we added this year was a day that it was going to be player-led," Quinn said. "So these are the things that the players wanted some extra time at. One day it might be coach-driven, like, 'Hey, these are the things I want you to work at.' Another day it might be a group session, say we're going to work the rookies into some things.
"The quarterbacks and the receivers wanted to get some more time working on routes, especially on the low red zone. Each block into training camp we devote a day or two to our 'Plan D' that's all player-led and that they've chosen to work on in this camp. Yeah, it helps. Just having that timing, that communication down and the more they put into that, obviously, that was a big emphasis for us into the offseason and minicamps and training camps. I'm glad to see not only is it from the coaching side, but it's from the players, as well."
The "Plan D" Quinn referred to is the developmental time his staff typically puts in with the younger players after practice. The Falcons have used such development as a selling point to undrafted free agents immediately after the draft, with a video clip sent out to agents. Here's an excerpt:
The "Plan D" program was created to bring the most out of young players -- we believe that Falcon University is one of the best places in the league to develop, learn and play football. Our coaching staff works diligently to take every player as far as their work ethic and skills will allow, and the results speak for themselves: 16 undrafted free agents have made our 53-man roster or practice squad over the past three seasons, with seven of those players playing in a total of 132 games during that time.
As Quinn explained, "Plan D" isn't just reserved for the guys at the bottom of the roster. For a team looking to be a Super Bowl contender in '18, the extra time following practice is invaluable."
Falcons tight end Austin Hooper offered his take.
"'Plan D' is just an extension of practice, in a sense," Hooper said. "Whatever throws I didn't get in with Matt due to however many reps or however the plays were scripted that day, it's a good opportunity to work just on little things with the quarterback at the end.
"Our younger guys will actually be with the coaches working on different technique things. ... During this 'Plan D' period, Coach [Wade] Harman, my tight ends coach, has been with the younger tight ends, which has allowed Eric [Saubert] and myself to go with Matt and work some goal-line stuff, work some red zone things and just some different concepts [Ryan's] been thinking about. It's just to get those reps that you wouldn't necessarily get in practice."
Nobody seems to be in a rush to get off the field when the three horns sound to signify the end of practice. In fact, it appears as if the players genuinely enjoy putting in the extra work, knowing the results could be beneficial once the regular season rolls around.
Free safety Ricardo Allen, one of the designated team leaders, relishes the extra time he gets to huddle up with his position group.
"That always helps," Allen said. "It used to be a coaches' thing, but now they're letting the veterans kind of handle it. It's a player-led team, so we get to pick and choose what we want to do and what drills relate to our position.
"I've got the free safeties, so I do a lot of tracking. I do a lot of ball judgment. I do a lot related to routes and formation recognition. I get to pass down a little knowledge of what I've done for the longest to get my game as crisp as possible. And that's going on at all the other positions also."
The player-led work after practice was more of an experimental concept during training camp. Allen believes it should continue during the regular season.
Sounds like the Falcons have a solid plan.