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The Falcons have given up the most QB hits in the NFL through 12 games

Atlanta’s passing game is a mess of late, and here’s one reason why.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If you have been watching the Falcons this year, you’ve probably noticed Matt Ryan absorbing quite a few hits behind this offensive line. Sometimes it’s a lineman being cleanly beaten, sometimes it’s a lack of open options creating a long pause opposing pass rushers take advantage of, and at times it’s Ryan holding on too long looking to make something happen. However you slice it, the Falcons are not keeping good company in terms of the number of times their quarterback is getting driven into the turf.

Hell, they’re not keeping any company at all. They’ve allowed more quarterback hits than any other team in the NFL, per an updated weekly count maintained by Johnny Kinsley. That’s not necessarily the sign of a useless passing attack—the Colts are the team behind them, and Carson Wentz has at least kept things humming well enough for Indianapolis to stay competitive—but it is one more metric that underscores just how futile the aerial assault has been for Atlanta of late.

Since the Saints game, the Falcons have cleared 200 yards in a game just once, and Matt Ryan has just one touchdown pass against five interceptions since then. Ryan has also been sacked 12 times over that span, and just two receivers have even cleared 50 yards in a single game (that’d be Russell Gage twice and Kyle Pitts, once). Those are extremely surface level stats, but they do a fine job of telling you how badly things have gone.

This is, first and foremost, an issue with the offensive line, but we can’t just stick a pin in that problem and go to lunch. While the state of this team’s pass protection is not great, the team’s inability to adjust to that reality in recent weeks and their inability to do much of anything when there is time to throw the ball tells you the issue goes deeper.

The Buccaneers game helps tell the tale from the offensive line’s side of things. Atlanta got two pressures on Tom Brady all game, but the Bucs sacked Ryan five times and hit him 11 times on 41 dropbacks. This team is allowing an average of 7.7 (if you want to round up, 8) quarterback hits per game, and that’s with a three game stretch against Washington, Miami and New York and a game against the Saints that saw them hold up a bit better. Ryan isn’t getting sacked at the same clip as he did in Dirk Koetter’s deep drop offense, but that’s not anything close to resembling a victory given that the Falcons can’t even pass at a clip that’s in the neighborhood with the games we roasted Koetter for last year. Ryan under duress is not throwing his crispest balls, and he hasn’t been as sharp as he was during that stretch between Washington and the Jets regardless.

With no sign of Calvin Ridley’s return, the onus has to fall on the coaching staff and the players out there to execute better and give this passing attack some breathing room to function—and to his credit, Russell Gage in particular has been stepping it up—but we’re deep enough into this season to not have any illusions about massive improvements. If Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone could gin up better passing, they’d have done so by now, even if I’m not always delighted with individual play calls.

As useless as the pass rush has been throughout most of this season, there’s a reason this all these hits and slow days through the air have risen to the top of my long list of concerns about this Falcons team. The Falcons have huge contract decisions to make for Matt Ryan, yes, but also Calvin Ridley, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, not to mention smaller decisions for everyone from Russell Gage to Hayden Hurst. They are going to be making a host of difficult choices this coming offseason, but the biggest one is around whether they are going to try to build this offense to succeed with Ryan or go in an entirely different direction after having signaled their intent to do the former in 2021. We knew this year would be a work in progress, but it’s alarming to see an offensive-minded head coach, a decorated quarterback and a massive amount of draft capital churn out one of the worst stretches this passing game has seen since maybe 2007, and to have five day 1 or day 2 draft picks on this line and very little in the way of consistent pass protection to show for it. Maybe they finish this year strong and some of these concerns evaporate, but it’s going to take an awfully brilliant finish and offseason for this to be any sort of a quick fix situation.

My working expectation is still that the Falcons will look to re-work Matt Ryan’s deal via an extension in the offseason and roll with him under center for the next couple of seasons, because that’s where the arrow has seemed to point all this time. To make that worthwhile and get this team back to contention, they’ll need to figure out a way to ensure a soon-to-be 37-year-old quarterback doesn’t absorb this kind of pressure and punishment in 2022, a task I certainly hope is easier done than said.