The Falcons are clearly pretty adept at playing offense and attacking opposing defenses, as demonstrated by the 540 points they’ve scored so far this season. A big part of their success, though, has come from their ability to convert on third down, and the biggest reason for Atlanta’s efficiency on third down comes from the stellar play of Matt Ryan.
Danny Kelly of The Ringer recently wrote a great piece looking at how well Ryan has played on the “money down” this season, and where he ranks in NFL history and this season alone.
Kelly goes on to say that the rate at which the Falcons have converted third downs has gone up in their last eight games, which is directly correlated to Ryan’s play: 82.1 percent completion rate, six touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 134.3 passer rating (best in the NFL in that stretch).
We won’t go much deeper into Kelly’s article because you should definitely go and read it yourself, but we will take a quick look at the Falcons past performance on third downs—mainly last year’s numbers.
Last year the Atlanta Falcons converted 47.1 percent of third downs, a number that is actually six points higher than the conversion rate for the 2016 Falcons. This higher percentage also came while facing a significantly higher number of third downs: this season the Falcons have faced 178 third downs, while they faced 227 third downs last season.
This is pretty surprising considering how much better the Falcons are offensively this season. Despite the higher conversion rate, it is pretty clear that there is a stark contrast between Ryan’s performance this season and his play last season.
In 2015, Matt Ryan completed 63.3 percent of his passes, threw seven touchdowns, and four interceptions when faced with a third down, resulting in a lackluster 89.8 passer rating on third down. Last season, when passing on third and less-than six, the Falcons converted 61.8 percent of their third downs.
When it got to third and six or more, the Falcons converted 36.5 percent of third downs when passing the ball. Matt Ryan’s four third-down interceptions came on third-and-five, third-and-six, and two plays from third-and-fourteen.
One last thing: The Falcons faced a higher percentage of third-and-longs (seven yards or more) this season than they did last season—48 percent last year, 51.6 percent this season. We all know that the 2016 edition of the Falcons offense is miles ahead of the 2015 version, but it is impressive to see how well they have played despite being in some trickier situations than last season.
All of this to say, Matt Ryan is truly the driver of this offense. The third down success this season—and the last eight games, especially—is a testament to his ability to read defenses, avoid pressure, and make accurate throws when the heat is on. Last season, we saw Ryan struggle on third downs for a number of reasons—maybe it’s the offensive line, the receivers, or some other issues—but it is clear that his play on third down this season has been spectacular.