Falcons' Matt Ryan Deserves a Better Team

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 7 - The first two weeks of this season felt like the end of the Matt Ryan era in Atlanta. Watching the Falcons sputter out to an 0-2 record was bad enough on its face, but the team's offense finished with the worst and sixth-worst offenses in each respective week by DVOA. Ryan himself was held to fewer than 5 yards per pass in the opener against the Eagles, only to follow that up with a three-interception performance against the Bucs. The defense was expected to be a tire fire— and it was and has been— but Ryan and the Falcons offense looked so bad that many wondered why the Falcons did not just punt on the season and draft a quarterback in April.

Five weeks later, things are still far from perfect. The offensive line is a mediocre pass pro unit at best, Calvin Ridley (who is not at his best right now) is the only starting-caliber wide receiver on the team, and the run game is still second-worst in the NFL ahead of only the expansion team playing in Houston. But all of that has mattered less since Ryan woke up in Week 3.

Imperfect as the offensive personnel may be, Ryan is back in form. All of the sharp processing, poise in the pocket, and accuracy that made Ryan a borderline elite quarterback for many years has resurfaced after being largely absent through the first couple of weeks.

One of the strongest pillars to Ryan's game as of late is how much better he makes this offensive line. Everyone who watches this pass pro unit with their own two eyes knows they are not good. Jake Matthews is a quality left tackle and right guard Chris Lindstrom can play, but the rest of the guys have left a lot to be desired. And yet, the Falcons rank ninth in adjusted sack rate through seven weeks because of Ryan.

Washington's defense is showing more pass-rushers than Atlanta has blockers. If Washington sends everyone, the Falcons are outnumbered and Ryan has to throw "hot." At the snap, all six players step towards the quarterback, letting Ryan know he is "hot" on this play. One of the linebackers (Cole Holcomb, 55) drops out late after occupying the center, which gets the Falcons to waste a pass-protector, in turn freeing up a rusher elsewhere, while still retaining a body in coverage. The combination of a free rusher and late movement in the underneath coverage might frazzle other quarterbacks, but Ryan has no issue finding his guy immediately right behind the late underneath coverage defender. First down Falcons.

This should not be a score. Any defense that could tackle above a middle-school level would prevent this from being a touchdown. Ryan giving this play a chance at all is important, though. Off the bat, Ryan does his best to stay with the front side corner-flat concept, hoping for Kyle Pitts (8, the outside receiver at the bottom of the screen) to break open on the corner route. Pitts gets jammed up and forces Ryan to come back-side, but just as the quarterback turns, Washington gets a bit of pressure. Without hesitation, Ryan fires to the running back in the flat and sticks the throw while falling to the dirt. Ryan knew exactly where his guy should be and let it go before the pressure could take him down.

Again, Ryan is fortunate this turned into a touchdown. Maybe he is lucky this even moved the sticks. Being able to give his running back a chance to make a play in an otherwise doomed scenario is a valuable trait for Ryan to have, though, and is especially important for a volatile Falcons roster that desperately needs their quarterback to breathe consistency into the offense.

When the pass protection does hold up, Ryan is as good as anyone at being able to work the entire field on a given concept. Ryan not only processes the front side of his progressions well; he can work back to the other side of the field and throw comfortably. In some ways, Ryan's ability to play for later routes in the progression "faster" than other quarterbacks helps out the offensive line. It also serves to let head coach Arthur Smith design the passing offense in a way that threatens the entire field sideline to sideline, which means something for an offense that is trying to get a lot of mediocre weapons open by stressing the defense with space rather than being able to bet on talent.

This is third-and-short. Ryan can not afford to throw something that may be contested and risk an incompletion, even if the reward is a chunk play. Moving the sticks takes priority. With that in mind, Ryan wants to throw to Pitts (on the line of scrimmage in the bunch at the bottom of the screen) working over the middle on an over route, but the route gets a bit held up and Ryan knows the safety is shaded towards the side Pitts is running to. The margin for error is slim. Rather than force his initial read and hope for the best, Ryan is able to reset his aiming point in the pocket, work back to the other side of the field to the receiver just inside the numbers, and deliver a strike against one-on-one coverage.

Washington tries to get to Ryan on this play by showing two-high coverage before blitzing their nickel corner and rotating to one-high coverage. The post-snap look gives Washington a three-deep, three-under coverage with the strong safety (to the offense's right) working to the deep middle while the weak safety (left) rolls down to replace the nickel underneath. Once Ryan sees the rotation, he knows the corner route on the right side is taken away due to the deep cornerback's leverage. Ryan then slides with his eyes to the middle of the field, which gets the deep cornerback to the left side playing zone to drift away from the sideline, opening the window for Ryan to hit the outside receiver with a sort of back-shoulder throw.

Ryan's understanding of ball placement is what ties all of these other traits together. Processing, trigger, and pocket management are all means to get to the right throw consistently, but placing the ball where it needs to be is still the most important trait at the end of the day. Ryan, right now, is as impressive as anyone at thoughtfully placing the ball where it needs to be relative to defenders.

This throw by itself is not special, but it will help set the stage for why Ryan's ball placement is so impressive right now. The Falcons hurry out of the huddle on the first play of the possession and instantly snap the ball. (As an aside, you can get away with more of these cool tempo and pacing tactics with veteran quarterbacks.) The Falcons run a drift route with their outside receiver to the left side. The Giants rotate late to a three-deep, three-under coverage, which means the route should be open in that first window between the outside underneath defender and the middle linebacker. Ryan knows that and rips the throw as soon as he hits the top of his drop.

Later in the game, the Falcons run the same route from a different look. Things look different pre-snap, but this play is designed to hit the drift route for the left outside receiver, just like in the last clip. The difference is that the defense is in Cover-3, which means the spacing of the underneath defenders is different. Rather than a true middle defender underneath, there are two hook players who can each work the outer "half" of the underneath middle area. As the linebacker tries to work back to his zone while getting some width, Ryan knows the window to hit this throw is not right when it breaks, but in between the hook defenders. Ryan takes an extra reset step that he did not take in the previous clip in order to let his guy run into that second window and delivers him a strike there. Granted, the safety just about makes an even better play, but he doesn't, and that's why football is a game of inches.

In this clip against the Jets, the defense is not in single-high coverage. The Jets are in Cover-6, which is Cover-4 to one side (bottom) and Cover-2 to the other (top); it is a two-high coverage. As soon as the inside tight end to the left crosses the formation behind the line of scrimmage at the snap and eliminates himself from that side of the field, the deepest safety knows he can come nail down on anything the wide receiver does. There is not anyone else left on that side to threaten him vertically now. Ryan is aware of the safety's leverage and throws this ball low and tight to the receiver's back hip, giving him a chance to shield the ball away from the safety. That is how to throw a receiver open despite the coverage theoretically being able to cover them with multiple defenders.

Ryan also showed some of this precise ball placement last week against the Dolphins. A healthy portion of the success in that game was also just Pitts being a complete superstar in every way, but Ryan did well to throw his other guys open when required to.

This is not quite the same concept, but it follows the same general idea of getting a player working over the middle of the field. Tight end Hayden Hurst (81) shifts to the No. 3 spot (innermost) to the new trips side of the formation and runs a bender over the middle behind the linebacker. The deep safety does well to trigger down on this, but the angle he takes is in front of the tight end. The safety wants to meet him where he is going, not where he is.

As such, Ryan leaves the ball on Hurst's back hip, which pulls him away from the safety. The safety is then forced to slow down a hair and redirect his angle of approach, while Hurst gets to turn and use his back as a shield to protect the ball. If Ryan throws this ball a yard out in front and let his guy run to get it, the safety probably decleats Hurst and forces an incompletion. Again, this is what it looks like to throw a guy open relative to the leverage of certain defenders.

All that being said, it is tough to decipher what all of this means for Atlanta. The good news is that Ryan's individual level of performance is probably sustainable. We have seen him play at a high level for many years and it is not out of the ordinary for him to have stretches where he looks like a top-five guy the way he has the past month. The bad news is that the rest of the team is not in position to capitalize on that in a meaningful way in 2021. The offense as a whole is incomplete and the defense is not making things any easier.

But you know what, reader: that is fine. Not every team has to be in the championship mix to be entertaining. Sometimes it is enough for a top-tier quarterback to play out of his mind and we can enjoy that for what it is. Ryan is one of those quarterbacks right now and we should appreciate it for as long as it lasts.


12 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2021, 7:47pm

1 Nice Piece

Really enjoyed this and learned a few things too. As an Atlanta fan I was worried it was the end too, but yeah this is an 0-6 team without Ryan. 

2 Ryan and this year's Falcons

I think what having Ryan versus a rookie QB allows them to do is evaluate the rest of the offense. Pitts will be a nice weapon for the next Falcons QB, and Ridley should still be a serviceable WR. It also allows them to realistically evaluate the rest of the roster, at least from a "the other team has to play normal against us (instead of treating us as a AAA team like NYJ, HOU, DET, and JAX)"--since they should be able to keep games competitive most weeks.

3 Draft

ATL really needs to trade Ryan prior to the draft; his trade value only decreases at this point and its clear they are not rebuilding in time with Ryan still around.  I would imagine Denver, Carolina, etc would love to him.  Does SF sell the farm for him if Trey Lance doesn't progress this year?

4 SF traded 3 1sts for Lance.

In reply to by Bill Walshs Ho…

They aren't trading for an old guy. Unless it's like Ryan + 2 1sts for Lance or something lol.

But maybe going home to PA, if Big Ben moves on, is an interesting option. They'd actually be able to absorb his whole cap hit. Thankfully for them, if traded, it would be millions less. Hmmm I actually really want to see this be done now. Makes too much sense if Pitt wants to keep trying to win (they currently sit at 18, maybe that's all it'll take to get him?)

7 Hadn't considered Pittsburgh…

Hadn't considered Pittsburgh but that's an intriguing possibility. 


Agreed that SF seems VERY unlikely but if GM/HC think Lance doesn't have what it takes, the fan base is starting to lose patience, and they may roll the dice on a win now move. 

9 Doubt the lifelong fans

care about winning now (nor should they!) when it comes to Lance. They just see the team losing with Jimmy G now anyways! They'd crucify the FO unless Ryan came with something else in a trade!

10 It would seem to be more…

It would seem to be more rational to let Lance develop and not go all-in with Ryan.  However, if Lynch & Shanahan feels immense pressure to win now due last season & this being so lackluster, do they behave irrationally and pursue Ryan?  I doubt it but they sure kicked the tires on Brady and Rogers. 

5 Agree on a trade needed, sometimes I take an opposite approach

In reply to by Bill Walshs Ho…

I totally agree that a trade is needed.  There must be someone out there that wants Matt Ryan at some price that can be agreed upon.  Looking back I can not believe that the Colts and Atlanta did not work something out this past off season.

I sometimes try a reverse when commenting to a commenter.  This time I will take an opposite approach to author  Derrik Klassen. 

Matt Ryan deserves a better team.  This is true.  Is it not also true that ATL deserves a worse QB? 

ATL is winning too many games to replace Ryan, especially in a weak QB draft coming up.  Had Atlanta understood who they were, they would have already traded Ryan before last year's draft.  Now they are only not in the playoffs today due to a tiebreaker loss with MN.  By DVOA this team is awful.  To chase this last playoff spot is absurd, they can actually win some more games with their schedule and should they actually play better and make the playoffs at 8-9, or 9-8 they will destroy their draft positioning.  Making the playoffs last year was no help to CHI or WFT.

The NFC's big 5 is a powerhouse, I always believe that everyone in the tournament has a chance in the NFL, but I would be hard pressed to give the 7 seed much of a chance in this stacked conference, especially if that 7 seed is Atlanta.

6 In the first clip, it looks…

In the first clip, it looks like the Washington defense is running Rain, which I just learned about from an Oliver Connolly article. The two A gap defenders are reading the center: the guy that the center moves towards drops back into coverage, while the guy that the center moves away from rushes the passer.

That leaves the center blocking air, which gets a free rusher from the 6 vs. 5 look even though only 5 guys rush - the side that the center moves away from has 3 defenders vs. 2 blockers. But it's a difficult coverage responsibility for the LB who is mugged up in the A gap and has to read the center before dropping back into coverage, and he gets beat over the middle.