The Falcons passing game has been very good if somewhat inconsistent through the first six games. Matt Ryan, is completing 68% of his passes at 7.5 YPA (6.7 sack adjusted YPA) for an excellent passer rating of 102.1. In addition, Tony Gonzales and Roddy White are having excellent years. TG is catching an unheard of 81% catch rate (%of targets resulting in catches) while Roddy is equally amazing at maintaining a 14.9 YPC average and a 72% catch rate. The amazing thing is Roddy has raised both his average (13 to 14.9) and catch rate (56% to 72%) from last year. Ryan is having an MVP type season, but Roddy is a large part of the engine that makes this engine tick, especially the deep passing game. He is leading the team in 20+(7) and 40+(2) yard receptions. In fact, no other receiver on the team has a 40+yard reception other than Roddy. Lastly, Harry Douglas has also raised his catch rate from 62% to 67% this year.
Despite raising his catch rate HD is not getting targeted by Matt Ryan enough. In fact, in his zeal to get the ball to his first three weapons Ryan often forgets HD even on occasions when he is open. This is one of the areas Ryan needs to improve on. Other than that, HD needs to improve his YPC average. At present it is at an anemic 9.3 YPC. Julio Jones also has a fairly low 12.5 YPC average (last year it was 17.8 YPC). This is despite the fact that is catch rate hasn't improved significantly from last year. It’s still at a fairly low 57%. This is part of two major concerns for our young wide receivers. Firstly, they have dropped far too many passes thrown their way this season (JJ is the bigger culprit) and secondly, they haven’t provided a lot of yards after the catch for our offense. The Falcons overall are getting just 33.5% of their yards after the catch. Last year, we got 41.2% which was more comfortably in the 40-45% range most good passing offenses lie in. Part of the blame here lies with Ryan who doesn't have the same chemistry with the young guys that he has with Roddy and TG. This is somewhat surprising because at various times through his career (2008 for HD, last year for JJ) Ryan has hooked up with these guys very well even for long balls. Hopefully, they will resolve this issue and the receivers will correct their drop problem through the rest of the season.
The Offensive line. Looking over the six games their averages are serviceable. A sack rate 5.3% (NFL avg=5.9%), an adjusted sack rate (advanced stat from football outsiders which accounts for grounding penalties) of 6% (15th in NFL) and NPP* (% of plays that result in negative pass plays i.e. interceptions or sacks) of 7.63% (13th in NFL). The problem lies in the fact that they have been very inconsistent. They have played well in 4 games and very badly in two. This is compounded by the fact the run blocking has been less than stellar. Right now, this needs to be the offenses No. 1 priority. The right side of the line may be a problem and the coaches need to know if it’s a product of Clabo being unhealthy or just not capable enough anymore. I suspect we will find the answer to this next week. The eagles bring a formidable pass rush with two great edge rushers in Cole and Babin. If Clabo plays well, we can take solace in the fact that he may have been injured and the bye gave him time to heal up. If he struggles, we need to be concerned. Even if it is just because of an injury, he is never going to be healthier than he is immediately after a bye. So we might be screwed. The other concern on the line is at center. Todd McClure has done a great job over the years and I don’t know if either Hawley or Konz are good enough to provide an upgrade over him this season but I fear that McClure is not strong enough for some of the bigger defensive tackles. This may actually be the more crucial problem. Clabo’s poor play can be alleviated with changes in scheme. McClure’s problems are a little tougher to solve and if they both play poorly Matt’s going to be running for his life!!
Update (10/24): The guys over at PROFOOTBALL FOCUS just came out with an article ranking the offensive lines of all NFL teams. They rank the Falcons 22nd in passblocking and 2nd in penalties which sounds about right. Fair warning: they don't have any details about how they arrived at these rankings outside of proprietary methods so I cant really vouch for their accuracy.
Special Interest Section: Matt Ryan
This year the Falcons have moved to a pass first offense as mentioned earlier by me and others. This has put considerably more responsibilities on Matt Ryan’s shoulders. And he has handled it remarkable well other than a minor decrease in his efficiency on 3rd down (will be discussed in a future post) and a tendency to force more plays. Some folks have been concerned about this more Cutlerian tendency Ryan has shown this year. Me? Not so much.
You see, I believe QBs are not supposed to be able to deal with pressure and by that I mean unexpected pressure generated from a four man front or if the QB fails to read a blitz. So when they face pressure, they have three options:
<!--[if !supportLists]-->1. <!--[endif]-->Scramble/ move around and hold the ball hoping for someone to get open
e.g. Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Eli Manning
<!--[if !supportLists]-->2. <!--[endif]-->Force the ball into coverage hoping/believing that you/your WR can beat the defender
e.g. Romo, Cutler, Favre and lately Rivers
<!--[if !supportLists]-->3. <!--[endif]-->Throw the ball away and try again later
e.g. Brady, Peyton Manning
Up until last year Ryan was comfortably in group 3 and frankly it’s a smart decision. Plus it’s great company to be in. The problem is that Manning and Brady are so good because a)they have very effective offenses where the odds of them gaining 5 yards is just really good and b)they are both EXTREMELY good at reading the blitz which means they are rarely caught off guard unless you can get pressure on them with a four a man rush. If you can they look mortal (e.g. Brady against the Giants). So the if you’re not as good as Brady/Manning, you throw a lot of balls away and you’re completion percentage drops from the 65+ range to the 60+range (Ryan in 2011=61%).
Now personally, I think Ryan can be as good as Brady and Manning as he continues to grow with his WR corp. That said, I believe this year he is trying to move up into Group 1. I don’t think he is going to get as good as Eli/Roethlisberger this year. Maybe he never does. But I like the fact that he is trying to improve his skill set in the regular season against bad teams rather than be forced to learn them on the fly in a do-or-die drive against a great defense in the playoffs. You may ask why do I think he is moving to Group 1 and not Group 2. Well, I don’t have any conclusive prove other than my read during games. For example, when he is being swarmed he looks more like Rodgers holding on to the ball too long rather than Cutler forcing the throw. Granted there are exceptions (the Raiders game) but I have seen far more instances of him holding onto the ball waiting for his receivers to come open. There are also these ancillary stats. His completion percentage has gone up from 61% to 68%, his TD% has gone up from 4.8% to 6.1% and 1st down% (% of plays resulting in first down) has gone up from 34.9% to 39.9%. He has achieved this without raising his interception rate significantly (1.9% to 2.2%). However, his sack rate has gone up 4.4% to 5.3% despite the line play looking better than last year indicating that maybe he is holding on to the ball longer than last year.
As a final note, he still needs to get more comfortable throwing the deep ball especially to JJ and HD. He has not been able to hit his receivers in stride and this is a problem I've observed since last year. Roddy and JJ do a great job of adjusting and catching the deep ball but I can’t remember seeing a deep ball that any of them caught in stride and ran into the end zone. I think this is the most glaring hole in his arsenal right now one he needs to fix if he wants to be a complete quarterback.
Disclaimer: Stats obtained from PRO-FOOTBALLREFERENCE.com by setting parameters to consider only non blowout situations i.e. no team leading by more than 14 points. This is not true for NFL averages, receiver statistics (20+ yard reception, 40+receptions, YAC, YPC, catch rate) which I got from ESPN.com, NFL.com and COLDHARDFOOTBALLFACTS.com