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Go Long: Why Is The Falcons Passing Game Sputtering?

The Falcons are bristling with weaponry. I don't think I have to account for everyone here, but suffice to say they have at least four legitimately good options in the passing game, and a decent supporting cast around them. This is not an offense that should struggle to score 14 points in a game.

Yet the Falcons have done exactly that, and it's becoming increasingly clear why. If you look at the numbers Pat Yasinskas of the ESPN NFC South blog dug up, you can see an odd duality to Matt Ryan thus far in 2011. Here's the breakdown from the Packers game on both short and long passes:

  • On passes of 10 yards or less, Ryan was 15 of 20 for 117 yards and a touchdown.
  • On passes of 11 yards or more, Ryan was 3 of 12 for 50 yards with two interceptions.

A caveat with these numbers. Obviously, it's easier to complete short passes. It's also worth arguing that 117 yards is a pretty anemic yield for 20 passes, and the Falcons should be trying to stretch the field more. But then you get to those longer passes and realize you're looking at an absolute trainwreck.

Matt Ryan simply hasn't thrown a pretty deep ball thus far in 2011. Even accounting for the two tipped passes which turned into interceptions—tough to blame him for a heads-up defensive play on a jump ball and a terrible Roddy White drop—Ryan executed as poorly as a headsman with a rubber axe. He sailed throws, threw the ball out of bounds and had trouble finding an open man downfield. This is not the first game of the season where that's been true, either.

After the jump, I explore five possible reasons for the increasingly well-documented struggles of this passing game on medium-to-long passes.

It's The Offensive Line's Fault

This is intuitive. We understand that even when Ryan isn't getting sacked, he's being pressured, and that affects his throws.

That's doubly true on longer routes, when plays need to develop and receivers need to get separation. When Ryan is under the gun, he simply doesn't have the time to make his reads. There's no denying that the threat of being drilled into the ground by someone like A.J. Hawk spooks even the best quarterback, and while the line has improved, it's still struggling to keep him upright and in the pocket all game long.

So is this it? Yes and no. Ryan threw it out of bounds a couple of times last night because the pressure was getting to him, but he also launched some poor passes when he had several seconds and time to roll out. It's a contributing factor, but it's not the sole one.

It's The Receiver's Faults

This is a fair case to make. Roddy White is banged up, Julio Jones is unable to get separation for long stretches of the game—and is now also hurt—and Harry Douglas has failed to live up to his pre-season hype. Tony Gonzalez is the only guy who is consistently getting open and making catches.

Again, though, this doesn't tell the full story. Guys are getting separation. On a couple of the sailed Ryan passes of yesterday, receivers had a step. Sometimes two. They're far from perfect, but they're not inept, either.

It's Matt Ryan's Fault

Ryan has struggled at times this season, making uncharacteristically bad throws. It's a purely subjective thing, but at times when I see him during the game, his body language is extremely nervous. The thing that isn't in dispute is that Ryan has not been as effective thus far in 20111 as he was in 2010. 

Again, this doesn't explain everything, but Ryan's accuracy on the deeper passes has been suspect. 

It's Mike Mularkey's Fault

This is likely to be the most popular explanation, and it too carries considerable heft.

Mike Mularkey has shown himself to be a man who can script a drive in amazing fashion. He handled the first two offensive series with something north of aplomb. Unfortunately, after his brilliant planning is over in the early game, Mularkey settles into a wrong groove. It's no longer so much that he's conservative--though he can be maddeningly so--as much as it is an unwillingness to truly challenge opposing defenses. 

Again, he might be concerned about route-running or Ryan's arm or the position of Venus in the night sky, but for some reason, Mularkey isn't getting it done. 

It's All Of The Above

This seems like the most likely explanation, doesn't it? When Mularkey calls dumb plays, the receivers fail to get open, the line doesn't protect Ryan and Ryan forces a bad throw, we're seeing a complete breakdown of the way this offense should be operating. It doesn't happen on every play, but when you look at the offensive body of work, it's clear that this is is a team problem.

Do you agree?