Film Shows How Matt Ryan Can Help Colts
NFL Offseason - Frank Reich has never been able to settle on a quarterback in Indianapolis. That is no fault of his own since the good ones keep retiring, but it has created a steady stream of tweaks and accommodations to the offense in order to fit each new quarterback. Some of each offense's particular identities were worth leaning into, such as the Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers schemes. Others were not, like the Jacoby Brissett and Carson Wentz attacks.
Reich is getting another crack at things with former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. While Ryan may not be the most outright talented passer of the bunch—it's hard to beat Luck, and even Rivers is a fellow Hall of Very Good member—he may bring the most balance and flexibility that Reich has ever had to work with. Luck is the only one with a real case against that, and even then, as we'll get to, that may not have been as true in 2018 as it had been earlier in his career.
Flexibility is a particular asset for Reich, whose best stretches of play calling often revolve around keeping formations and personnel fresh and uncertain for the defense. As good as Luck and Rivers were, they necessitated a certain type of offense more often than not, while Brissett and Wentz necessitated a different style of offense because they were not good enough to succeed on their own.
With Luck and Rivers behind center, the Colts offense favored more shotgun looks. They used shotgun formations on 74% and 75% of snaps, respectively, and both figures were in the top 10 each year. Luck and Rivers also used play-action at a slightly below-average rate, sitting at 25% (21st) and 22% (19th) respectively. Both Luck and Rivers played with fairly quick time-to-throw averages, each placing inside the top 10 in their respective seasons. Lastly, both produced top-10 DVOA figures when passing without play-action. The offenses were more spread out, quicker on the trigger, and less dependent on manipulating defenders with play fakes. The gun usage and time-to-throw averages make sense given Rivers' age and lack of athleticism as well as Luck's declining health and desire to be kept cleaner than in years past, while the lack of play-action tracks with the higher shotgun use and the fact that both quarterbacks were more than smart enough to handle a full dropback game.
Both offenses had success, placing inside the top 12 by DVOA, but it's worth wondering how much better they could have been on the ground and/or explosive through the air if they had been more comfortable working more from under center. That's not a comment on Reich doing the wrong thing or Luck/Rivers being secretly bad, just that there were some limitations amid an otherwise effective offense.
Let's flip to the other end. With Brissett and Wentz, the offense was more focused on getting under center and funneling the passing game through play fakes, both standard play-action and RPOs. The offense fell to an average shotgun rate—68% for Brissett and 64% for Wentz—which in turn means more under-center formations. Coincidentally, Reich's best two years of rushing DVOA came with Brissett and Wentz at quarterback, particularly last year when they finished second. There are just more rushing concepts an offense can get to from under center than from shotgun, so that correlation isn't a surprise. Reich also kicked up the play-action for each quarterback, a natural by-product of an under-center offense. Brissett used play-action 30% of the time (eighth) in 2019 and Wentz used play-action 34% of plays (third) last year. The run game and play-action (as well as RPOs, in Wentz's case) were Reich's answers to his subpar quarterbacks.
However, their subpar abilities still shined through, particularly in the areas Luck and Rivers thrived. While Luck and Rivers got the ball out quickly, Brissett had the second-slowest average time to throw in 2019 and Wentz was the 13th-slowest among 39 qualifying passers last season (via Next Gen Stats). While they also outpaced Luck and Rivers in average depth of target by about half a yard, both Wentz and Brissett were still only about average in depth of target themselves, so it's not as though they were hanging onto the ball in order to let loose down the field all the time. Moreover, both Brissett and Wentz were below-average producers without play-action. Neither has a quick trigger nor particularly impressive accuracy. Wentz used to be better without play-action, particularly back in 2017 and 2018, but it's clear he isn't that level of player anymore.
Ryan factors into all of this as a bridge between the two offenses. Given Ryan's production over the past year and a half, it's hard to imagine how he has enough in the tank to do that, but when you watch Ryan on film, it becomes evident that this is still a good, complete quarterback who would make a lot of offenses better, including Indy's. It's just hard to prove that when your best wide receivers are Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus.
From a schematic standpoint, Ryan is extremely comfortable with the under-center, play-action format. Ryan has played in an offense with at least 40% under-center usage every year since at least 2012. Until very recently, he was largely a productive player under those parameters and played like a top-10 quarterback more often than not. At his best, Ryan won an MVP and nearly a Super Bowl with Kyle Shanahan under those schematic guidelines. From that angle, he can be the best parts of the Brissett and Wentz offenses.
Whether it's whipping around and firing in-breakers over the middle (a skill that made up about half of Ryan's Film Room feature in 2021) or rolling out to find receivers on the move, Ryan has no issue getting under center, then turning his back to the defense. Ryan understands where the windows are supposed to be before they are there. He doesn't need to stare and wait post-snap, he's anticipating things will happen and firing without hesitating. That makes it sound like a "hell or high water" situation, but as consistently as Ryan has been right over the years, it's clearly a product of study and repetition.
Even when Ryan has to shuffle around, he still knows where to find his guys. In this clip, Ryan turns his back to the defense on the play fake and is almost immediately met with Saints colors in his face upon turning around. It's terrifying to think about what Wentz might have done here, but Ryan finds no issue moving off his spot and finding a new throwing window down the field as the receiver clears past the linebacker.
Ryan can also be the best part of the Luck and Rivers offenses. Ryan's health and/or athleticism isn't as sapped as either Luck or Rivers' (yet), so indexing into more shotgun snaps won't be necessary. However, when the Colts do go to gun, there should be no shortage of formations, personnel groupings, and concepts available to Ryan as there were in the Wentz offense last season. Everything is on the table because Ryan can make every throw and do so on time while managing the pocket effectively, all of which Wentz could only really do in brief spurts. Ryan can do all that without needing play-action or RPOs, too, which wasn't the case for Indy's quarterback last season.
Take both of these sail routes to Kyle Pitts, for instance. In the first clip, Ryan sniffs out the slot blitz, resets himself for a moment before snapping the ball, then immediately looks to find the sail route. Ryan knew that if the slot corner did indeed blitz, defenders from the middle would have to pop out to get bodies in coverage, which would give Pitts' out-breaking route great leverage and space. In the second clip, the Bucs are a bit less forthcoming with their blitz until the snap, but Ryan doesn't panic. He finds space in the pocket and hits Pitts right as he's coming out of the sail route, keeping the catch point just too far and inside for the deep cornerback to get there since he still had to worry about the vertical route on the sideline.
Ryan loves these benders, too, and he has no reservation about throwing them aggressively. In this example, Ryan sees the linebacker to his right coming on a blitz. He can then assume there will only be one other defender immediately over the middle of the field, the left linebacker, and he can work the spot/bender combination based on the linebacker. The linebacker sits, so Ryan rifles the ball in, even keeping it on the receiver's back hip to protect him (and the ball) from the safety.
To the same point, Ryan can also get the ball out much more quickly and protect the offensive line. That doesn't necessarily mean Ryan will be a checkdown machine, but he will not be as prone to holding onto the ball for no reason and will generally be much timelier within the structure of a play, both of which Wentz often struggled with.
Against Carolina, Ryan feels the pressure bearing down on him. It would be difficult not to, though some quarterbacks such as Ryan Tannehill and Daniel Jones seem to operate that way. That doesn't deter Ryan. Instead, he just speeds things up a little bit to get the ball out early and trusts that Pitts will be at his landmark on time. Pitts held up his end of the bargain and Ryan delivered the ball right where he needed to, converting on one of many tough third downs the Falcons faced last year.
Even this little flip out to Cordarrelle Patterson requires quick thinking, a quicker trigger, and good placement to lead the receiver without running him into the safety. The defense isn't playing perfect coverage here, but with how well the safety tracks and closes, it's not bad either. There's little room for error to leave air under this. Ryan walks the tightrope perfectly and gets the ball to Patterson for a fresh set of downs.
Now, none of what has been laid out here is to say the Colts are getting Peyton Manning redux. Ryan's arm is a bit sapped compared to what it once was, and that did show its head from time to time last season on deep throws, especially in instances he wasn't throwing them right away in rhythm. If anything, that will be the limitation with this offense, though Ryan was still capable in that area and it's not as though this Colts roster is designed to go bombs-away anyhow.
Ryan also had some bad reps last season, but any inspection of his film catalog makes it clear that many of his worst plays were a product of circumstance and the pressure to massively outperform his situation, which wasn't really possible behind a feeble offensive line and with Pitts the only reliable pass-catcher.
Ryan's history as a productive player and bright moments on film amidst a disaster last year are good credentials as he heads to Indianapolis. There is plenty of reason to believe this is Reich's best and most complete quarterback since Luck and, more importantly, a sizable upgrade over Wentz in every way. Maybe that's not enough to put Indianapolis into elite territory, but it was by far the best quarterback move they could have made this offseason and adds a degree of stability to the offense that wasn't there a year ago.