The Atlanta Falcons have a nice baseline to work with from the 2021 season under Arthur Smith. At quarterback, there are some questions that need to be answered, but they still have their franchise guy in Matt Ryan. There are certain aspects that can’t be addressed until the draft or free agency starts, but the Falcons will able to address the salary questions right away.
The biggest question is what the Falcons will do with Matt Ryan’s contract. The first thought here is to adjust the structure and extend the deal to make it more team friendly moving forward. While that may not seem ideal to those who are ready to get rid of the Falcons long-term franchise quarterback, it’s not going to help the Falcons for the long term to try and replace him this year.
Feleipe Franks is the only other quarterback on the roster, and his deal is essentially the minimum deal for the next two years. The Falcons could improve upon Franks as a backup in the short term. Eventually, Franks will be replaced with someone more talented and more investment.
Unrestricted Free Agents:
A.J. McCarron played in the preseason a little, but basically wasted cap space for the season being on injured reserve. Josh Rosen was terrible in short sporadic action this season. Neither guy should be a priority to retain.
The current need for the Falcons is for a competent backup that is actually worth a roster spot. Right now, it’s easy to see that the combination of Josh Rosen, Feleipe Franks and A.J. McCarron were lucky to never see the field in a meaningful moment of the season. By getting someone in free agency along the lines of say, Joe Flacco, Mitch Trubisky or Marcus Mariota, the Falcons could end up with a solid backup that would upgrade over the current crew.
Potential Future Need
The Falcons do need to have an eye to the future with Matt Ryan turning 37 this season. He still has the accuracy, but his arm is starting to fade with the repeated hits, and there aren’t a lot of options in the passing game. If they feel there’s the right option for Ryan’s eventual replacement in the draft, they should take him. However, this draft class is not great and may only have long-term backup options.
What the Plan Should Be Moving Forward
In short, the Atlanta Falcons should stick with Ryan until he takes that massive drop off the cliff and the line and receivers aren’t obvious problems around him. Until the decline in his play is actually obvious, Ryan is the guy. Finding a solid backup in case his ridiculously good injury luck doesn’t last should be an imperative. The 2023 and future classes look much better at quarterback, and the Falcons should find his eventual replacement then.
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
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
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.
Before we delve into the game preview, I would just like to thank and credit Hunter Thompson of Falcons ATB, for his contributions and insights in putting together this preseason matchup article.
Q. What do you hope your team will gain from the joint practices held in Miami?
HT: “I hope the team really decides to step up and compete and stays tough and physical with Miami this week. I know going against new players is huge for development, so I hope we see them gain confidence and have good meaningful reps.”
Heading into the joint practices with the Chicago Bears, I stated how the primary focus would be how to deal with the mobility of Justin Fields. The starting defense to a certain extent did manage to contain Fields, however never really exerted a lot of pressure with Fields having all day in the pocket never really needing to scramble. Coming into the second week of preseason, the Dolphins will face its second kryptonite; elite receiving tight ends. Facing the likes of Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst, all eyes will be on Eric Rowe and the rest of the Dolphins’ defense as to how they contain the threat that Pitts poses.
Coming out of the 2021 NFL Draft, Pitts’ NFL comparison was Darren Waller, a player that torched Eric Rowe Week 16, despite him being right on him nearly every play. Rowe v Pitts will be the biggest matchup to watch out for. Also look out for how Miami’s linebackers especially Jerome Baker looks in coverage.
Nevertheless, the receiving threat posed by the Falcons extends far beyond containing Pitts, especially with the likes of Calvin Ridley coming off the back of a 1,374 yd season where he averaged 15.3 YPC. The whole secondary will for sure be tested after a very good first week of preseason.
UPDATE: Following the first day of joint practice, the battle has been as anticipated. Thankfully for Dolphins fans, aside from the play shown above, by most accounts Eric Rowe had a fantastic day.
Q. A lot of Dolphins fans had their hearts set on Kyle Pitts, how has he performed so far?
HT: “We have yet to see Pitts play in the Falcons uniform, but based on the Training camp we’ve been hearing, he is a standout in camp. He is helping fill the hole left by Julio Jones when he got traded to Tennessee. If Pitts plays this game, look for him to take over the game if he is as good as he is being advertised. “
Fan Q. How strong is the receiving unit this season without Julio? How much involvement do you anticipate Russell Gage having this year? Is he the definite WR2?
HT: “The receiving unit without Julio will look very different. Look for the Falcons to implement a lot of two tight end looks to take advantage of having both Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst on the roster. And for Gage, look for him to be a potential flex option or low-end WR2 for you and your fantasy team. I think he will still be the third option, but who knows for certain.”
Q. How did you fare Week 1 of preseason? What went well? Who stood out? What/who concerns you?
HT: “We lost 23-3. And it was a tough game all the way around, we struggled in the trenches on offense and only amassed 139 total yards. Nothing really on offense went well which is concerning, but the defense actually had some standouts in Ogundeji and JTM at the EDGE positions. Marlon Davidson (who is out this week) also managed to stand out in the DL department.”
Despite losing 20-13, the Dolphins started preseason very positively. Box scores in such games are largely irrelevant. The Dolphins starters and second team played very well. By the half, the Bears had barely managed a first down against a defense not featuring, Howard, Jones, Phillips or Ogbah. The offense were successful at moving the ball down field with Tua going 8/11 and 99 yards. However, Miami did struggle in the red zone, being stopped on the goal line and then the eventual pick to end Tua’s evening. Nevertheless, I would not be worried about this, as Tua has excelled in red zone drills all throughout camp.
Stand out performers include Tua (despite INT), Justin Coleman (the one man hit sticking machine, who needs to learn to wrap players up), Nik Needham, Mack Hollins, Eric Rowe, Salvon Ahmed, Jakeem Grant and Noah Igbinoghene who made some good plays, despite a rather troublesome camp.
The Bad and the Ugly:
Without sounding like too much of a broken record, the offensive line struggles exhibited during Week 1 of preseason will be the primary focus heading into Saturday’s game. Facing the Bears elite defensive line, the offensive line was decimated throughout the first day of joint practice. Despite some bounce back during the second day of practice, the offensive line remained an issue heading into the preseason debut. While the starting pass protection was fairly good, with Tua Tagovailoa complementing the line for giving him a relatively clean pocket, run blocking was almost none existent.
As Chris Spooner eluded to in his recent article, the left side of the line including Austin Jackson and Solomon Kindley was especially problematic in establishing the run. Consequently, PFF gave Kindley a 45.7 run-blocking grade while Austin Jackson graded even worse scoring a dreadful 38.1.
Q. What are your expectations going into the game? What do you hope the team takes away from it?
HT: “I am going into this game with low expectations for a few different reasons. Mainly because it’s the preseason and I don’t think the game itself matters as much as meaningful reps for each player. Last week we saw a few standouts even though we as a team struggled, and that’s the biggest plus of the preseason for me. But I hope we see the offensive line step it up. Last week against the Titans the line struggled the entire game and we can’t afford two weeks of that. When the line struggles it makes the evaluation process for skill positions so much harder.”
Going into the second preseason game, the main thing I hope to see is consistency. If Tua can string together another couple of good series to his depleted options at receiver, it will be a success, even against a shaky Falcons secondary. I would like to see a lot more of Jaylen Waddle in this game as a receiver, as he left week one without a catch. I would also like to see more of our pass rush in getting pressure in at the QB.
However, all eyes will be on how the offensive line performs. As aforementioned, pass blocking was relatively good during the first game. I want to see this continue with consistency while beginning to open up running lanes for the backs. The return of Liam Eichenberg can bring some optimism to fans, although I wouldn’t get your hopes up.
Q. Are there any injury concerns affecting the team heading into the game?
HT: “I don’t really have any major concerns coming in, I’d like to see Marlon Davidson playing in the game, but it is what it is.”
In contrast with that of Atlanta, Miami’s situation is a lot more tenuous, especially at wide receiver. As I stated in a previous article when healthy the Dolphins have an elite receiving threat, however we are yet to see it. Coming into the first day of joint practice, the following receivers were missing:
While availability for a preseason game is not a big issue for the likes of Parker and Fuller, until those players are on the field we will not see the full capability of this offense. With the offensive line woes many people have questioned the decision to pass on Penei Sewell. However, with the options at receiver now, thank god for Jaylen Waddle.
Outside of the receiving room Jaelan Phillips returned to practice this week, but given his value, he will be brought back form injury very slowly, making him an outsider to feature heavily in the second preseason game. Liam Eichenberg, Brandon Jones and Ogbah have all returned to practice this week. Rookie TE Hunter Long has been dressed for practice, but has not participated in team drills due to ongoing pain stifling his return.
Q. Which player on the other team scares you the most?
HT: “Jaylen Waddle. 100%. His explosiveness is concerning for the young defense we are going to be fielding.”
Calvin Ridley no doubt. His route running is truly elite and one of the most technically gifted receivers in the game. Any one who can torch Xavien Howard the way he did in camp, deserves fearing.
Q. What are your expectations going into the season?
HT: “We are at a weird point where we are retooling the roster while still trying to be competitive, which looks strange. But looking at what we did in the draft and how some of those picks are playing we are running a pretty decent first offseason under the new regime. But that also makes this conversation difficult because no one really knows what to expect from this current roster. Some fans are expecting a playoff push, while others are expecting another top 10 draft pick.”
Dolphins fans you will just have to keep your eyes peeled for the Dolphins ATB staff’s expectations and season prediction article in the coming weeks.
Once again I would like to thank Hunter for his help and insights throughout this article. Be sure to go follow him on Twitter. Many have predicted this game to be the “dress rehearsal” for the season with the final game intended for those players on the edge of the roster. As such expect Tua to get more reps and thus hopefully more highlights for us fans to revel over until the season. Fins Up!
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