For the second consecutive week, Matt Ryan had a subpar performance. He looked unsettled against an outstanding Bills’ defense. It wasn’t surprising, considering Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu were injured. Missing both of your starting wide receivers for an entire half in a close game is going to create problems. The real issue is Ryan’s troubles started long before both players were sidelined. He is missing far too many throws and not making enough plays for a player at his level.
To examine his issues, Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen joins me to break down what went wrong against Buffalo. Derrik is constantly watching quarterback film and writing informative pieces. I wanted to bring on a great football mind to add another perspective. This is something I’m planning to do at least once a month. Derrik also writes for Bleacher Report and Optimum Scouting.
I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are four of Ryan’s biggest errors, as Derrik and I analyzed each play.
First Quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 49
Klassen: It appears Ryan got a tad lazy with his mechanics on this one. The flat side of his back foot is pointed toward the middle of the field behind the target, rather than toward the target area. Ryan also fails to drive on the throw properly. He instead lofted or pushed the ball through the air, when he needed to bring his torso into the throw and get some "pop" as he released the ball.
Strk: When using play action, the Falcons love utilizing Jones on deep over routes. His ability to shift past opposing cornerbacks and explode upfield makes him a lethal option for these designs. This is an excellent play call from Sarkisian. It’s not easy to create big plays against McDermott’s disciplined defense. You must take your chances against them. Ryan fails to do so on this play.
Derrik makes an excellent point about Ryan lofting the ball. It’s one of his most frustrating tendencies. Not putting more touch on his deep throws has translated into missed opportunities. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan has only completed three out of 15 pass attempts on throws 20 yards or more this season. That is an alarming stat, considering the plethora of weapons at his disposal. There has been some debate about Ryan’s poor game correlating with Ryan Schraeder’s absence. While Ty Sambrailo is a significant downgrade, the criticism has been slightly exaggerated. Ryan receives good protection here. This is simply a bad miss, as the ball doesn’t even hit Jones’ fingertips.
First quarter: 3rd and 9 at 50
Klassen: If I'm not mistaken, Ryan is trying to throw back shoulder on a wheel route to Sanu. Once again, Ryan's footwork is out of sorts. He swings his entire body too wide when he turns to Sanu. His shoulders are already open before he begins to throw, making it difficult for him to get any drive on the ball and control the release point. Ryan misses high and wide, as a quarterback often does when he opens too wide to his left.
Strk: There seems to be a growing sentiment that Steve Sarkisian is holding back the offense. Although his play calling can be conservative at times, you can’t say he isn’t putting Ryan in favorable situations. The former Washington head coach is starting to use more trips and rub route concepts. It can create confusion and (most importantly) space when properly executed. They create enough room for Sanu to make a routine catch.
This is another glaring miss from Ryan. Despite rarely attempting back shoulder throws, every quarterback should be able to make them. Ryan leans far too wide to make an accurate throw. These footwork issues are concerning for such an established quarterback. He spent countless hours working on his footwork during the summer. It’s an integral part to his success. For Ryan to suffer from these lapses without facing much pressure is worrying. As a true student of the game, most would assume that he makes the necessary adjustments. You don’t expect a former NFL MVP to let fundamentals derail them.
Third quarter: 2nd and 1 at ATL 39
Klassen: Taylor Gabriel wasn’t open here. Maybe had Ryan pulled the trigger immediately and done a better job of driving on the throw, Gabriel gets a real chance at the ball, but that was not the case. Ryan made a late throw beyond the range of his arm talent. A rare, careless mistake from Ryan.
Strk: Many people focused on criticizing the throw rather than the decision. While nobody will applaud the throw, it wasn’t the sole reason behind Ryan’s first interception. Buffalo was well-prepared for the deep ball. With only two receivers running routes, they were able to handle their coverage assignments and prevent any potential big play.
Not having Jones and Sanu certainly didn’t help when trying to stretch the field. Micah Hyde was in excellent position to cover Gabriel. Ryan found success hitting Gabriel on vertical routes last season, when the speedy playmaker got behind the defense. That wasn’t happening on this occasion. Ryan threw up a near 60-yard prayer and paid for it.
Fourth quarter: 2nd and 17 at BUF 49
Klassen: This is the most confusing play of the bunch. I'm not entirely sure whether Ryan is late pulling the trigger or if Ryan expected the receiver to cut that route off shorter and stop. Both are entirely possible, but given that Atlanta was down their two top receivers at that point, I'm leaning toward putting blame on Justin Hardy for this one. Without knowing the play call or route specifications, it's tough to tell one way or the other, but Ryan does not often have communication issues like this with his top guys.
Strk: Although Hardy is the fourth wide receiver, he has a strong rapport with Ryan. Jones is the only wide receiver that has been with the Falcons longer than Hardy. It’s hard to see the timing being off. As Derrik mentioned, Hardy may have possibly ran the wrong route. It seems unlikely based on previous experience. Ryan’s recent performances gives more of an indication that he is at fault here.
They desperately needed a decent gain to put themselves in a manageable third down situation. Running a quick-hitting pass play made complete sense. On such a critical drive, Hardy’s route should be designed to gain at least eight yards. Sarkisian couldn’t risk calling a long-developing play, especially with the limitations at wide receiver. This appears to be another notable miss from Ryan. Instead of picking up a solid gain, his poor throw leaves them needing to pick up 17 yards. That miscue led to Ryan’s second interception on the very next play. Not converting these opportunities can come back to haunt any team. The Falcons learned that in a cruel way, as their star quarterback failed to elevate a decimated offense in a winnable game.