Right now, the Falcons are set to have limited cap space in 2022, though they can open some up with a handful of moves. One of those moves might be extending Matt Ryan’s contract, and if Atlanta does so, they’ll want to give him the best possible supporting cast they can. It’s vitally important to this Falcons team that they have an efficient, effective passing attack to buoy what we all hope is a stronger run game and improving defense next year.
The problem is that right now the passing game is a mess, and that messiness is profoundly disquieting. Cory Woodroof was not wrong to urge patience with this team, as he did yesterday, but I’m finding myself unable to exercise patience with what’s happening through the air in Atlanta right now. Let’s chunk out what’s bothering me:
- Matt Ryan has not looked sharp of late. There’s such a persistent and frustratingly polarized debate about Ryan’s worthiness as a passer — and maybe human being — over the arc of his life that it’s sometimes difficult to have a conversation about the week-to-week performances. Ryan was playing pretty well to very well from Week 3 to Week 9, overcoming missing weapons and an inconsistent ground game to make crisp passes and show vintage decision-making. Over the past three weeks, he’s struggling with those same issues but is also not delivering those tight-window throws or avoiding pressure the way he was before. Given that the passing game has been deliberately focused on shorter passes, particularly against the Jaguars, that is a cause for concern.
- His receivers have not looked sharp. There are times when Ryan is sitting in the pocket for a tiny eternity, waiting for someone to get separation, and it just does not happen before he has to throw it away or (more likely) gets swarmed at last. Russell Gage is getting better results the last couple of weeks, but Kyle Pitts and Ryan have misfired on a couple of interceptions and he’s been largely taken out of games entirely of late. Olamide Zaccheaus and Tajae Sharpe are struggling to get consistently open, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst have been absent, which has left Ryan seeking out Patterson, Mike Davis, Parker Hesse and Keith Smith far more often than I think is intended when the plays are drawn up.
- The pass protection has been pretty brutal. The Jaguars game represented a welcome reprieve, but the Jaguars also only have one or two pass rushers of note. In the four weeks prior to that, Ryan had been sacked 11 times. You can hang some of that on hesitation or holding the ball for too long — that’s a habit that has gotten Ryan into trouble in the past — but most of it has come from failures in pass protection. You don’t really want your 36-year-old quarterback taking more hits than anyone else in the league, but that’s what has happened through 11 games.
- The coaching staff just doesn’t seem to have answers for any of this. A year ago, the justifiably maligned Falcons passing game was all about pushing the ball downfield and not about picking up any yards after the reception, as Atlanta was 6th in intended air yards per attempt, 2nd in completed air yards per completion, and 31st in yards after the catch per completion. The Titans under Arthur Smith, meanwhile, were 12th in intended air yards per attempt, 4th in air yards per completion, and 19th in yards after the catch per completion. Smith’s offense is not predicated on deep passing to the extent Dirk Koetter’s was, but when everything’s firing you’ve got a good ground game supporting a crisp passing attack that features wide receivers who can pick up extra yards.
Naturally, none of that is happening for the Falcons in 2021. They’re 29th in intended air yards per attempt, 18th in completed air yards per completion, and 29th in yards after the catch per completion. It’s incumbent on the coaching staff to find a way to take advantage of extra defensive attention on Kyle Pitts when he can’t defeat it, and to try to give Ryan’s receiving options a chance to turn the short passes this team has been relying on into bigger gains. Aaron Freeman suggested a greater use of bunch formations to help spring receivers open and we did see some of that on Sunday, but too often the team’s biggest gains through the air came because someone like Mike Davis or Russell Gage turned an absolutely hopeless short pass from a mid-destruction Matt Ryan into an improbable first down pickup. I don’t think there’s an elegant, simple solution for any of this, but I also think Arthur Smith, Dave Ragone, and Company have to cook something up given that the personnel situation is not changing.
You’ve seen all of this with your own eyes, so none of this is going to bowl you over even if you quibble with one aspect or another. I think you’d also likely agree that the Falcons just aren’t going to win many more games in 2021 without improving their production through the air, but my concerns are both for 2021 and 2022.
The Falcons are facing three of the top five passing defenses in the NFL in terms of yards, with the Bills (#1), Panthers (#2), and 49ers (#5) left on the slate. If you’re going by touchdowns, the Bills are still #1, with the 49ers (#10), Saints (#14) and Panthers (#16) all sitting in the top half of the league. The Lions are a cupcake matchup and the Buccaneers actually don’t have a great pass defense this year, but there aren’t a lot of get-right opportunities remaining.
Realistically, there’s no cavalry coming, either. The Falcons will get Hurst back in a couple of weeks if all goes well, but he hadn’t been particularly productive before he was injured. There’s no indication of when Calvin Ridley will come back, or if he will at all in 2021, and while I think we haven’t seen the best Gage and Pitts have to offer, they’re not going to go super Saiyan the rest of the way. Aside from the rotation with Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessy at center, the line doesn’t figure to undergo any drastic changes, either.
That means you’re heavily dependent on everyone — from Matt Ryan to Pitts to Jalen Mayfield — to play better and get this thing back to something approaching a credible NFL passing attack. You’re asking the coaching staff to unlock things they haven’t unlocked to this point with a fairly limited group of receiving options. You’re asking for a sea change, in other words, and you’re asking for it to happen right now so this team can weather a tough stretch coming up.
I think expecting some strides in the coming weeks is reasonable and hopefully very productive. Expecting things to improve to the point that this passing attack is humming at any point between now and the end of the season seems much trickier, and that’s what worries me.
Now look ahead to next season. Atlanta could go in a number of different directions with their offense in 2022, but even with a Matt Ryan extension, they’re not going to be flush with cap space. They currently are set to only have Ryan, Mike Davis, Calvin Ridley, Frank Darby, and Kyle Pitts under contract for weapons, though they’ll return most of their offensive line. We don’t know if and when Ridley will return, we have no idea what Darby can do, and Pitts should be special but can’t be the only legitimate weapon this team has to throw to.
What concerns me is that it’s unclear how much draft capital and how many dollars the Falcons can and will pour into the offense, and how many of those need to go into shoring up a rushing attack that has also been ineffective beyond Cordarrelle Patterson. The results from this group have been so uneven that simply returning everyone and counting on improvement in the second year seems like a shaky bet, but breaking in several new pieces who will either be rookies or reasonably-priced free agent signings also doesn’t feel like a recipe for drastic improvement.
That’s why I’m so concerned with — and interested in — what this Falcons passing game looks like over the final six weeks of the season. This is one of the worst stretches, statistically, of Matt Ryan’s entire career in Atlanta, and there don’t seem to be any easy fixes for what ails this team right now. Shaking off the past three games and getting at least modest improvement going against a tough slate of pass defenses will show that these coaches and players are capable of growth, and perhaps even that it was just a bad stretch, which will help us have faith and even confidence that the Falcons can head into 2022 and build on something.
If they end the year with seven-to-nine duds in their final nine games, it will indicate there is a level of dysfunction here that a single offseason may not be able to fix, regardless of their win/loss record over that span. All we can do is wait and watch, but I’m hoping against hope that the Falcons can find solutions to their three-game plummeting that makes it clear a brighter future is on the way.