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The Falcons passing game figures to bring back effective play action under Arthur Smith

Matt Ryan loves play action, Smith loves play action, we all love play action.

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Carolina Panthers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It’s no great secret that Matt Ryan likes play action, as do most quarterbacks when it’s used effectively. Kyle Shanahan’s heavy use of play action enabled Ryan’s MVP season in 2016, and the decline in that usage and an increase in more traditional deep drops coincided with a drop in production in Dirk Koetter’s offense.

In 2019, Ryan was 3rd in the NFL in passing attempts and just 17th in play action passes. Koetter made more of an effort to change that in 2020, as Ryan jumped all the way up to 4th in play action passes while leading the league in passing attempts. That 24% usage paled in comparison to the Titans offense and Ryan Tannehill, who used it on 32% of their passing plays. When Ryan was faking handoffs and thriving back in 2016, Shanahan was using play action on a league-high 27% of plays.

We could spend the morning grousing about Koetter again, but he at least made an effort to improve year-over-year in this regard and he’s hopefully off enjoying retirement, while the Falcons are on to a very different coaching staff. Instead, let’s acknowledge that one of the reasons Arthur Smith is probably excited to work with Matt Ryan is that he’s been consistently great on plays Smith ran with a lot of success with Tannehill under center.

Consider what made the Shanahan offense great in 2016. Ryan has never had the strongest arm in the league and that arm isn’t getting any stronger, but he’s perfectly capable of taking shots 20+ yards downfield if he has the time and confidence in his receivers. In 2016, at least, Ryan was getting nearly another full second to throw on play action and averaging three more yards per attempt than on non-play action plays. If this team can come close to replicating that extra time in the pocket, the passing game is going to hum on these attempts, especially because Atlanta’s receiving corps is better than it was in 2016.

Ryan’s future in Atlanta is still cloudy—we’ve written it enough and we’ll likely have cause to write about it again—but it’s not because Smith and this coaching staff doubt his ability to get the job done. If Smith is willing to commit to play action more frequently and can generally call a more savvy game than Koetter, the kind of statistical rebound Ryan seems likely to have in 2021 might surprise a lot of people who don’t realize how well this new coaching staff fits with #2 does well.