Why 2016 could be Matt Ryan's best NFL season
Falcons QB Matt Ryan, in his ninth NFL season, is arguably playing the best football of his career. Atlanta’s offense is tops in the NFL in a number of categories, including points per game (33.8)—a mark that, if the season ended today, would be tied for seventh all-time. Ryan playing well is nothing new, as he’s put together a very solid, consistent career—but this is different. While Ryan has always been a true franchise-type QB, his play has been amplified to new levels this season, with several key factors behind the success. So, what’s different?
The biggest thing you see when watching Matt Ryan (90.8 overall grade through Week 9, second among NFL QBs) direct this unit is this is a smart, disciplined offense across the board. The Falcons have built around Ryan with unselfish and savvy football players that are willing to do whatever is in the best interest of the the offense in order to achieve success. They play with confidence, chemistry, precise timing, and for offensive junkies, it’s a thing of beauty to watch, as they mesh in every facet.
Much of this is coach speak you’ve heard in the past, but few teams around the NFL are ever able to execute such discipline. Good offenses are consistently accountable and detail-oriented, and it’s obvious that things are held to a high standard by Ryan and Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the leaders of the offense. This is why Shanahan is able to dial up a variety of personnel groupings, formations, change tempos, and basically throw everything at a defense, dictating how a game is going to be played.
Ryan and the Atlanta offense are constantly in attack mode, and incredibly balanced doing so. The offensive line is steady, with Alex Mack (86.2 overall grade, No. 3 center) and Andy Levitre (82.1 overall grade, No. 15 guard) leading the way. The Falcons certainly lean more towards throwing to set up the run, but their running game is among the top 10 in a majority of statistical categories, and is a big factor in making the passing game tick.
Shanahan certainly deserves a lot of the credit for putting this whole thing together in his second season, as the familiarity with the system has helped everyone. He has the luxury of all the Falcons’ key skill players being movable chess pieces, with Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, and Austin Hooper all capable of lining up in a variety of spots and running a number of routes in the passing game. Shanahan and the offense’s week-to-week game-planning has been arguably the best in the NFL, constantly knowing how to attack a defense with timely play calls.
With all of those things mentioned above helping Ryan out, he is the one making the whole operation work efficiently. One word comes to mind with Matt Ryan and how he’s playing this season: trust. He trusts what he sees and that his guys are going to be in the right spots, and he’s letting it rip with assertiveness at all times. Is his arm just a tick better than we’ve seen in recent years with the offseason work he put in? Certainly. His footwork is more crisp, his progressions have been clean, and the trust in what he’s seeing defensively—knowing the areas and spots his receivers are going to be—has Ryan playing confidently, with very little mistakes in his game week-to-week.
Key stats behind Ryan’s success through Week 9
- The Falcons lead the NFL in yards per play on first downs, averaging nearly 7.3 yards. This helps them to consistently stay ahead of the chains and keeps the playbook wide open.
- Matt Ryan is currently sixth in passer rating under pressure, at 82.8, and is one of five quarterbacks yet to throw an interception under duress this season. Ryan has been pressured right at the league average (on 33 percent of his dropbacks).
- Ryan has thrown for the most deep-passing yards (on throws traveling 20+ yards in the air) this season, with 779. He is second in both passer rating (138.6) and adjusted completion percentage (59.0) on such throws, and tied with Ben Roethlisberger for the most deep touchdowns (eight). Most importantly, he has no interceptions on deep passes. Last season, Ryan tied for the second-most interceptions on deep shots, with five, despite having the lowest attempt percentage, at 7.5; he was just 28th in passer rating, at 70.7. Ryan rely’s on timing and anticipation as a deep-ball thrower, and his offseason emphasis to improve those areas of his game has shown.
- Having the game’s highest-graded receiver in Julio Jones is obviously greatly contributing to Ryan’s success, but the rest of the supporting cast has also stepped up. Last season, the group tied for the fourth-most drops, with 37; this year, they have the seventh-lowest drop total, at 10.
- Ryan recorded the second-most red-zone interceptions last season, with four. This season has seen clean red-zone play, with 13 touchdowns to just one pick.
If there was one play that could signify what this offense is doing week in and week out, it would be this one:
The Falcons cross the 50-yard-line after back-to-back empty formation sets and use an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. No-huddle forces defenses to show their hand and dictate coverage early, while the offensive play-caller is still able to talk to the QB up until 15 seconds on the play clock. The bunch formation set—and Taylor Gabriel’s formational alignment—forces the defensive back to play outside leverage. The play call is the perfect answer for the cover-6 (cover-4 strong, cover-2 weak) the Packers are playing, and is a play commonly used to beat this coverage. Rookie tight end Austin Hooper occupies the safety, and Gabriel uses his speed to get down the field and make the play. The tempo to force the defense to show their hand, the formation, the play call from Shanahan to give Gabriel the advantage on the DB, good protection from the offensive line on a 7-step drop, and Ryan making a perfect throw with timing and anticipation all play roles in a successful Atlanta attack.
In today’s NFL, the quarterback is asked to do so much, and for a good offense to roll, the QB needs to have an extreme mental capacity to handle the complex defenses that are intensified more than ever. Ryan has always been a smart and analytical player, and has a handle on an offense that shows no sign of slowing down, resulting in arguably his best season yet at the midway point.