Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is having a good year. Maybe you've heard his name dropped when commentators discuss MVP candidates. (Or maybe you've just heard them talk about Tom Brady and how he could legitimately spend an entire season on IR and still win MVP.)
For the most part, there's not been much to criticize Ryan about this season. And when your franchise quarterback is playing this well, nitpicking him isn't always the best idea. That said, I can guarantee you that Ryan is his own harshest critic. He's looking to improve his play, no matter how well he and the offensive are clicking. And that, Falcoholics, is why we need to talk about third downs.
According to Football Outsiders, Ryan should be more aggressive on third downs. They come to that conclusion using their "ALEX" metric. (In short, on third downs, it's the difference between how far the pass is actually thrown and the first down marker.) Think of it this way: if you're consistently throwing passes that aren't at or beyond the first down marker, you aren't setting yourself up to convert the pass. There are, of course, certain circumstances where throwing short of the first down marker would make sense. For example, a play that is specifically designed to rely on some yards after catch. But that said this is a solid metric and something worth considering.
As you can see here, Ryan's ALEX ranks 29th among QBs with at least 30 third down passes. But to his credit, he's still mustered a 76.4 percent DVOA on third down passes, 12th best percentage in the league. In short, he's passing pretty conservatively on third downs but it's not affecting his overall efficiency on third down. Is this something we can attribute to Kyle Shanahan? Possibly. And would his third down efficiency suffer if he were more aggressive? To be frank, I don't know, but I suspect it wouldn't.
Here's why this matters: the Falcons have converted 44 of 112 third downs. That's 39.3 percent. (17th highest percentage in the league.) That figure includes running and passing plays. One way or another, it'd be nice for them to get a little better on third downs. If Ryan just gets a little bolder, it could make a difference.