Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Matt Ryan

Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan

The Atlanta Falcons have completed the first quarter(ish) of the 2021 season, and with the team in a bye week, it’s the perfect time to contextualize their up-and-down start to the year. I will go through each position group, starting with Matt Ryan, and break down what we’ve seen and what we might expect moving forward. Allow me to give you guys fair warning upfront, I’m a stats nerd, and these posts will be dense with advanced statistics. I know some readers will be happy to indulge in the statistical nonsense, but for those of you whose eyes glaze over at the mention of DVOA/EPA/Success Rates, I will summarize my opinions to close out each section. So, feel free to ctrl-f “TLDR” to find the high-level takeaways.

Let’s dive in.

Atlanta Falcons Offensive Production

The Atlanta Falcons are 2-3 going into their bye week. Absent a prototypical late-game collapse against Washington; the Atlanta Falcons would have a winning record for the first time since 2017. Still, this is the best start the team has had in years, and though the opponents haven’t been high quality, there are signs this team is starting to find its footing. Let’s start with the total offensive production stats, as well as Matt Ryan’s individual passing stats. 

Atlanta Falcons Q1 Offensive Statistics and Rankings

Atlanta Falcons Offensive Production

Matt Ryan Passing Statistics

Based purely on raw production statistics, the Atlanta Falcons appear to be a below-average unit offensively. They are around the bottom third of the league in points scored, and yards gained. While Matt Ryan and the passing offense have clawed back its way back to league average, the running game has continued to be lackluster. For an offense that is supposed to lean on the running game, finding Ryan among the top five in attempts/completions shows how ineffective this team has been on the ground.

Atlanta Falcons Advanced Stats: Offense

Atlanta Falcons Advanced Stats

Here is a quick primer on EPA and Success Rate. EPA stands for Expected Points Added. Expected Points are calculated for any given play based on down, distance, and field position. Total EPA is an aggregated score for these individual plays. A positive number is a desirable outcome.

Success rate is relatively self-explanatory; it measures whether a play was successful. A play is considered successful if it gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down. If you’re interested in a deeper discussion on EPA, check out this article.

The advanced metrics roughly mirror the team’s production, even if the numbers paint a slightly less optimistic picture. In terms of EPA (Expected Points Added), the Atlanta Falcons are 23rd in the NFL at -.016. For the uninitiated, a positive value is good while negative values are bad. The run game is dragging down the total number significantly. However, over five games, the passing game is still well below the middle of the league despite a decent success rate, suggesting the offense hasn’t been particularly explosive.

Thankfully, we have seen this offense start to blossom over the last two weeks. Here are the EPA/Success Rate numbers if we isolate the previous two games.

  • Total EPA: .193 (ranked 6th)
  • Total SR: 48.3% (ranked 12th)
  • Dropback EPA: .383 (ranked 4th)
  • Dropback SR: 54.2% (ranked 10th)
  • Rushing EPA: -.137 (ranked 22nd)
  • Rushing SR: 38.2% (ranked 24th)

Though the rushing statistics improved marginally, the passing statistics saw a dramatic improvement. There is an argument to be made about the strength of schedule, but games against bad teams count too. Despite Matt Ryan’s slow start to the year, he appears to be growing much more comfortable in this offense as the season progresses.

Is Matt Ryan Cooked or Cooking?

The hottest debate of the young season has centered around Matt Ryan. Falcons Twitter has been the battleground for Ryan haters and apologists for years. Still, the venomous discourse has accelerated dramatically since the team chose to pass on a quarterback in the 2021 draft. One side is convinced Matt Ryan is over the hill, while the other can’t comprehend the criticism. Meanwhile, the rest of the fanbase is left hiding under a table, hoping everyone calms the hell down. 

I could write an entire post on this debate and how unfortunate it is that we can engage in a nuanced discussion, but I’ve spent too much time on that soapbox. The truth, as is usually the case, is somewhere in the middle. Ryan had a disastrous start to the season. The film is terrible. The stats are ugly. Apologists will point to his supporting cast, and while there is some merit to that, Ryan deserves a sizeable portion of the blame.

We saw minor improvement in the Giants game, but despite a better stat line in the box score, it was still a sub-par performance for our franchise quarterback. I’ve seen PFF grades thrown around quite a bit on Twitter to illustrate how well Ryan has played over the last two weeks (which he has), but, conveniently, they never mention his 60.4, 65.9, and 52.1 grades in the first three weeks. 

Matt Ryan’s Turnaround is Real

The turnaround, however, is real. Over the last two weeks, Ryan has been lights out. He has completed 66.7% of his passes for 625 yards and six touchdowns. He’s posted 90+ PFF grades in both weeks, something he hasn’t done since 2017. It would be simple to write this off to improved line play, which is true to a degree, but that doesn’t give you the whole picture.

Through the first three weeks, defenses logged an average of 14.6 pressures per game. During Ryan’s recent resurgence, the line has allowed an average of 13 pressures over two games. While the line finally pitched a shut-out last week, the pressure rate hasn’t decreased dramatically. Both Ryan and the line have stepped up their play. In fact, in terms of navigating tight pockets and evading pass rushers, I’d say Ryan had his most impressive game since 2018 against the Jets. He routinely sidestepped pass rushers and delivered the ball accurately and on time. 

Matt Ryan Has to Keep Growing in the Offense

The hope is Ryan is growing more comfortable with this new scheme and the new players around him. Ryan has historically been a slow starter. This always seems to slip people’s minds when he doesn’t immediately leap to the top of the league every year. Despite the addition of Kyle Pitts and the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson, this is likely the least talented group of skill players around him since his rookie season. These are all reasonable excuses for him to rank 21st in QB DVOA and 19th in DYAR (Defense Adjusted Yards Above Replacement). Despite these below-average numbers, the arrow is pointing up. However, there are still reasons to be nervous.

Atlanta Falcons Looking for Explosive Plays

The single most reliable predictor for offensive success is explosive plays. The single QB stat that reflects an offense’s ability to generate explosive plays is Intended Air Yards per Pass Attempt (IAY/PA). Matt Ryan is averaging 6.2 IAY/PA, which is the lowest in the NFL for all players with 100+ pass attempts. Stated simply, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t attacking downfield.

Part of that is by design. Arthur Smith isn’t Bruce Arians. He doesn’t want to attack defenses vertically every down. A middling-to-poor offensive line necessitates a greater emphasis on a short passing game. However, part of this is Ryan too. As tough as it is to admit, Ryan seems to have lost a bit of velocity on his passes. It’s not the end of the world, nor is it a reason to discard him immediately, but it will be a hurdle for this team to clear moving forward. 

TLDR: Matt Ryan

Opinions on Matt Ryan span a broad spectrum and are often dependent on variables that have nothing to do with the game actually being played on Sundays. However, if we restrict our focus to his actual performance, we’ll see reasons to worry and reasons to be hopeful, and both are valid. It’s foolish to demand unwavering loyalty, much as it is foolish to ignore the glaring mistakes we’ve seen from him early this season. In the span of five games, we’ve seen the best and worst of him. The big question is, which version will we get for the rest of the season? 

I suspect the recent tear he’s been on is a sign that he is growing more comfortable with the offense and that Smith is getting a better handle on setting Ryan up for success. His production and the advanced metric all indicate the arrow is pointing straight up for Ryan. However, it is probably unreasonable to expect him to match his recent output when facing some of the better defenses he’ll see over the next few games. The Cowboys, Saints, and Panthers are all on a completely different tier than the Jets and Washington. How he fares against top-level competition will give us the best look into what the future holds for this franchise.

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