How does a team rebuild with a 36-year-old quarterback? Why did the new regime not select a quarterback in a stacked draft class? What is the point of moving forward with someone who has clearly peaked as a player?
These are common, justified questions when assessing the state of the Atlanta Falcons, particularly their franchise quarterback Matt Ryan. Working with new head coach Arthur Smith did create some intrigue around how well Ryan can play under an offensive-minded coach. The possibility of creating high-percentage looks and explosive plays is something the offense desperately needed following two years of working under Dirk Koetter’s archaic system. For all those potential progressive changes, the pressure was on Ryan to play at a much higher level after two forgettable seasons.
An opening-day debacle against Philadelphia left everyone perplexed as to how the Falcons can be a functional team, let alone a good one. They were the only team in the league to not produce a play of 20 yards or more in Week 1. Considering Calvin Ridley’s ability to get open at will and the promise credited to Kyle Pitts after he was selected with the fourth pick, the idea of Ryan not completing a single pass over 20 yards on 35 pass attempts in a game is outrageous.
It wasn’t the first time the Eagles completely wrecked Atlanta’s overmatched offensive line. It’s unfortunately become a familiar sight for Ryan over the years. With a matchup against the Super Bowl champions on the road next, many feared the former MVP quarterback would not just not fare well but also not hold up at all against one of the most ferocious defensive fronts in the league.
Could Ryan still perform at a high level against the best teams in the league? Even in a loss, he proved he can against Tampa Bay.
Pocket intelligence at its finest
When a team is still searching for their identity with a suspect offensive line, the quarterback needs to play smart and improvise on the fly to keep them afloat. Watching Jalen Mayfield, Matt Hennessey, and Kaleb McGary get dismantled against Philadelphia had to influence Todd Bowles’ game plan to some extent. While the highly-regarded defensive coordinator is known for blitzing frequently, he brought extra pressure on what felt like every other play. Whether it was Devin White through the A-gap or Jordan Whitehead on a safety blitz, five or six defenders were coming after Ryan on a consistent basis. It only resulted in one sack from Ndamukong Suh, albeit a vital one on third down as the Falcons were manufacturing a decent drive.
Ryan’s overall performance was the biggest reason why Tampa Bay’s blitzes didn’t completely wreck the game. There were instances where Ryan showed tremendous pocket movement to evade pressure. There were glimpses of Ryan processing what Bowles was bringing and delivering pinpoint passes to his weapons. Most of all, impressive scoring drives were created from the five-time Pro Bowler making savvy individual plays to keep pace with the greatest quarterback who has ever played the game of football.
The Falcons were surprisingly only six of 15 on third down. Although the rate could certainly be higher, Ryan did everything he could to produce when the pressure was most on him. On third and eight, White blazed into the pocket untouched, which became a repetitive theme in the second half as Hennessey repeatedly got caught out of position. Ryan side-stepped White and evaded the pressure brilliantly to connect with Olamide Zaccheaus for a 12-yard gain. It was one of those signature moments where Ryan made up for the poor infrastructure around him to make a terrific play. On the next drive, he hit Ridley across the middle for a 22-yard gain on third and seven. That drive ended in a touchdown which made it a one-possession game. Going into the fourth quarter only down three points against the Super Bowl champions was impressive, especially after a difficult first half where the entire team was outclassed.
No matter how many exotic blitzes Bowles dialed up, Ryan was ready to take them on and get the ball out quickly to his playmakers. A completed fadeaway throw to Ridley is another prime example of Ryan being prepared for the heat. Escaping a collapsed pocket to lob up a rainbow to Cordarrelle Patterson for a touchdown proved to be another big-time play where Ryan remained composed to make an excellent decision with the ball.
There appears to be an immediate rapport between Ryan and Patterson. If a player has an explosive skillset where he can produce big plays whenever the ball is in his hands, Ryan will look to get him involved. Look no further than Ryan creating an instant connection with Devin Hester in 2014. Ryan is more than capable of bringing the best out of unique, multidimensional players. The way he looked for Patterson during critical points of the game was a significant reason behind the offense’s success.
Despite ending the game with three interceptions, it’s difficult to put any of those interceptions squarely on Ryan. Two batted-down passes at the line of scrimmage from Vita Vea being a monster and an overloaded blitz from the strong side led to two interceptions. Staring down Russell Gage did lead to Anthony Edwards anticipating the route and closing in on the pass, however. A healthy Gage makes a much stronger play on the ball to prevent the interception off the hitch.
Those three interceptions won’t take away a performance that showcased outstanding poise, awareness, and cleverness from the veteran quarterback. Playing behind a dysfunctional offensive line against a defense filled with stars will lead to breakdowns. The fact that Ryan identified where the blitzes were coming from consistently, got the ball out fast efficiently, and put the Falcons within striking distance of pulling off an upset should give the entire team confidence going forward.
For all the positive moments and flashes of brilliance, there is more than enough evidence to suggest the Falcons are in for a long season. Only allowing one sack is more from Ryan’s astute play rather than solid pass protection. Hennessey continues to look lost in pass protection. Mayfield showed some progression, but he gets knocked off-balance far too often. The same can be said for McGary, as well.
It was alarming how poorly Mike Davis fared in pass protection. For such a physical running back, you’d expect him to be effective at chipping edge rushers and picking up blitzing linebackers. Davis was lackluster in those areas, which could lead to further opportunities for Patterson. These issues are greatly concerning, as despite his strong Sunday, Ryan can’t be counted on to play every week at a high level under heavy duress. If front fours are generating constant pressure and blitzes aren’t being picked up properly, it will only encourage defensive coordinators to bring extra pressure at will.
Per my colleague Eric Robinson, Ryan was given less than two seconds to throw on 19 of his 46 pass attempts. That is a staggering amount for any quarterback, let alone one who is 36-years-old. Ryan did show he can still play at a rapid pace and hit receivers in tight windows. Pitts’ first explosive play as a pro came from a dart that was slightly behind him, yet perfectly placed with Lavonte David and White being in pole position to make a play on the ball. To rely on a 36-year-old quarterback, who has taken a beating over the past three seasons, and put him in precarious positions to take further punishment is a recipe for disaster.
Ryan will receive some criticism for the offense’s failings, and if there’s one area in which that’s justified, it’s the deep ball. It has become more evident that his arm strength has severely declined over the past three seasons. Seeing Ridley get open downfield and have to wait for Ryan’s deep ball to arrive, turning a massive opening into a 50-50 ball had to raise major eyebrows across the organization.
Ryan did put the ball in harm’s way, as Pro Football Focus charted him with four turnover-worthy plays. For as gutsy as a game he had, there was some fortune behind his productivity. Some signs implied the Falcons are going to be much more methodical compared to past seasons, where they had the personnel to stretch defenses and Ryan had the arm strength to hit receivers in stride downfield. The lack of deep threats, dependable offensive linemen, and Ryan’s aging body will mean more 10+ play scoring drives rather than quick scoring drives with bursts of multiple 20+ yard plays. With the players they have, including Ryan, it’s important that the Falcons figure out a way to make this all work at a high level.
It’s easy to question why the Falcons opted to stick with Ryan for another season. He isn’t the player he once was, leading a team that has gotten considerably worse over the years.
What can’t be questioned is Ryan’s determination, ability, and mind. He is still capable of being an above-average quarterback that can win games. While the offensive line struggled and Smith’s poor situational decision-making cost the Falcons in Tampa Bay, Ryan did everything he could to put them in a position to win. There are still plenty of things to improve on, such as building a stronger rapport with Pitts and connecting with Ridley to produce explosive plays.
What Ryan proved against Tampa Bay is that those integral things can absolutely be done with his accuracy and intelligence, and there’s still hope that the offense can become what Smith envisioned it to be: an efficient, balanced attack.