I set out, with this article, to see how Matt Ryan’s 2018 performance stacked up against the rest of his career when you consider the number of sacks and hits he took. I was expecting to see that Ryan, like most quarterbacks, fares best when he’s not getting knocked around by defenses, and that 2018 would prove to be the best year of his career when he was genuinely under siege. A true outlier, in other words.
I sort of found that, but I also found that Ryan’s career doesn’t quite follow the neat and tidy narrative.
The initial takeaway from this chart is going to be an odd one, one that sort of upends everything the Falcons keep telling us about how important it is to protect Matt Ryan. But that is, quite naturally, not the story we should actually take away from this, so go ahead and review it and let’s come on back. Please note that these numbers are, as far as I am aware, only available back to 2009.
2018: 42 sacks (13th), 102 QB hits (6th)
2017: 24 sacks (27th), 87 QB hits (15th)
2016: 37 sacks (11th), 106 QB hits (6th)
2015: 32 sacks (23rd), 89 QB hits (17th)
2014: 31 sacks (19th), 89 QB hits (13th)
2013: 44 sacks (10th), 100 QB hits (5th)
2012: 28 sacks (25th), 83 QB hits (8th)
2011: 26 sacks (27th), 84 QB hits (7th)
2010: 23 sacks (30th), 69 QB hits (21st)
2009: 27 sacks (25th), 67 QB hits (21st)
In light of this, Matt Ryan has had his three best seasons when the Falcons have allowed somewhere in the top ten most quarterback hits in a given season, and a pair of lesser seasons (a still very good 2011 and um 2013) when facing the same. Ryan has been impressively durable all these years taking a huge number of hits and, especially over the last several years, getting sacked quite often. But does that mean he doesn’t need quality protection to thrive?
Sort of. The 2016 team was hellbent on making big plays happen, which meant more time in the pocket for Ryan and a greater strain on a very capable offensive line. Ryan took more hits and sacks that year—the highest total in his entire career—because the offense wanted him to hang in there until a killer play materialized. They didn’t always, but they did often enough that the Falcons enjoyed the best offensive season in franchise history, one with a terrific rushing attack to balance things out. The story was similar in 2012, when the offensive line was stone solid and Ryan was trying to push the ball downfield, though he did not have the advantage of a compelling ground game this year.
Otherwise, things went as you’d expect. Ryan was quite good in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2017 (even if the stats didn’t show it) when he was pretty well-protected, and in those early years the Falcons weren’t quite so gung-ho about going downfield and largely had a bruising rushing attack to help out. The real outlier on this list, then, still is 2018, when Ryan’s line was crumbling around him, he took the second-highest number of hits and sacks of his career, and he still put together a campaign that would credibly have been MVP-worthy if not for the team’s poor record and the season Patrick Mahomes put together.
The upshot of this is that Ryan is still very good, very durable, and very capable of making plays under duress, which sets the Falcons’ offense up quite well for years to come. But the Falcons would not have been able to pull off their 2016 success without an offensive line that gave them the time to unwind some elaborate machinations and get receiving options into positions for big plays, and with Dirk Koetter coming back on board, it would be a mistake to suggest that Ryan’s relative success in 2018 would be repeatable with poor blocking in front of him again.