In September, Atlanta's offense was firing on all cylinders and making waves across the league. Kyle Shanahan's ability to scheme an effective running game became a weekly talking point, at least until we realized Devonta Freeman is brilliant. Julio Jones' record-smashing single season pace was another credit to Shanahan's play calling as well.
At 4-0, Atlanta was becoming the new hip team that people could get behind. In the three weeks since, the offense has scored a combined 50 points. Shanahan has drawn ire for the offense's lackluster play, which has been compounded by Matt Ryan's inaccuracy, The supposedly explosive passing game hasn't taken advantage of defenses that lack an above-average corner or ball-hawking safety.
Disappointing Wide Receivers
A strong wide receiver corps on paper hasn't translated into consistent production on the field. Roddy White's decline has come sooner than fans expected. Leonard Hankerson hasn't been able to erase his issues from Washington (seven drops out of 37 targets), and now is not healthy. Justin Hardy's debut is now more anticipated than ever, and besides the emergence of Nick Williams, everything has gone wrong for wide receivers not named Julio Jones.
A limited wide receiver corps has affected the entire offense. Ryan has never been fully capable of elevating players around him. That isn't a slight on Ryan, as most quarterbacks need top-tier weapons to be productive. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers appear to be the only current quarterbacks that can elevate marginal wide receivers in the NFL. Cam Newton could also make that list, but the way the offense is built around him and his ability make him a bit of an outlier.
Matt Ryan's outlook
Ryan isn't gifted with a cannon arm or athleticism to constantly escape pressure. He was always a pocket passer with excellent poise and intelligence. Analysts became enamored with his ability to come from behind in the fourth quarter, and his fearlessness when targeting star cornerbacks such as Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman has always been appreciated by fans. In a league that lacks consistent quarterback play, Ryan had become one of hte league's more consistent quarterbacks. Even against far superior teams such as Green Bay or New Orleans (between 2009-2011), he was going to make throws to keep Atlanta within striking distance of victory, or propel them to victory.
Recent Poor Play
Excluding the loss against New Orleans, Ryan and Shanahan have put the Falcons in a position to lose over the past three weeks. Ryan's dreadful interception to Bashaud Breeland could have ended their chances of a comeback. His new awkward movements inside the pocket have affected his footwork. When teams bring pressure, you don't see Ryan step up very often or look to scramble. He has become increasingly anxious, when the pocket begins to collapse, though he did escape several times on Sunday.
Similar to Andrew Luck, Ryan has unfortunately dealt with poor pass protection over the past three seasons, and no quarterback should be expected to excel under constant duress. Quarterbacks have to properly read blitzes and make throws and reads that force opposing defenses to drop more men in coverage, opening up opportunities underneath. Ryan has had some trouble with that, as he missed a fairly easy touchdown to Jones in the second quarter when Tennessee brought heavy pressure. How does such a clearly high-caliber quarterback continue to miss routine throws on a weekly basis?
Charles Davis stated that Ryan "looked off to start the game," which has been a weekly occurrence on the road. Even through impressive comeback victories against New York and Dallas, the offense looked sluggish in the first half. If these slow starts occur against much better teams such as Minnesota and Carolina, how does Atlanta expect to prosper and win? Those three games could very easily determine playoff positioning, so it's an important question to address now.
Shanahan's recent failures
Not all the blame should be hung on Ryan. While every team envisions their offense becoming an unpredictable juggernaut, many do get too cute. The unwillingness to let Devonta Freeman run the ball on short-yardage situations is simply nonsensical. Since being blown up on two short-yardage plays against Philadelphia, Freeman has been successful on nearly every third down situation. He easily converted a third-and-short in the third quarter yesterday, but those opportunities were few and far between.
There is no justification for calling a play-action during that situation. The ball has to be in the hands of your running back, who was successful throughout the game. It also didn't help that the play-action design wasn't an actual roll out. Ryan was stuck in the pocket and had to throw it up to avoid being sacked. Most play-action designs on goal-line situations are made effective by utilizing rollouts, unless Drew Brees is playing against the Falcons. In the end, Shanahan needs to have confidence in his offensive line and Freeman's ability to get tough yards, especially when the passing game simply isn't functioning at a high level.
With Tampa Bay and San Francisco as upcoming opponents, Atlanta couldn't ask for better opportunities to regroup. The offensive line will need to bounce back from struggling in pass protection yesterday. While already having six wins is very gratifying, the Falcons could easily be 4-3 right now. The defense has played well, but lackluster quarterback play hasn't helped the team play to its full potential. This team will go as far as Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan takes them, and we have to face that reality.