The Falcons’ 2016 offense was the most devastating unit in football. Atlanta racked up a ridiculous 33.8 points per game, led the league in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, and averaged an NFL-best 6.7 yards per play. On most weeks, watching quarterback Matt Ryan and Co. dissect opposing defenses felt more like taking in a fireworks display than a football game.
With historic production came recognition. Ryan, who averaged an incredible 9.3 yards per attempt on the season, was named MVP. Kyle Shanahan parlayed his success as the team’s offensive coordinator into the head-coaching job in San Francisco. The notion of the team replacing Shanahan with former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian always presented the possibility of an offensive dropoff, but no one expected this version of Atlanta in 2017. The reigning NFC champions fell to 3-2 last week after scoring just 17 points in their second consecutive defeat. Now, with a Super Bowl rematch against the Patriots looming on Sunday, it’s time to diagnose how much this group has slipped and what has gone wrong.
To begin with, it’s important to note that the sky is not falling. For all that’s ailed this year’s Falcons, they rank fourth in offensive DVOA and first in rushing DVOA. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman are ripping off a combined average of 4.8 yards per carry, with Coleman leading the way at a clip of 5.6. Plenty of that damage has come courtesy of the work of center Alex Mack. The 31-year-old signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Falcons in March 2016, was named second-team All-Pro last season, and somehow has been even better this year. Atlanta leads the NFL in yards per drive (40.3), plays per drive (6.68), time of possession per drive (3:09), and drive success rate (according to Football Outsiders).
Still, there are clearly signs that the unit has taken a significant step back. And nowhere has that been more evident than in the passing game.
The Falcons’ passing offense was absolutely lethal last season. It seemed like Ryan was able to stack 10-yard completions whenever he damn well pleased, thanks largely to a scheme that relied heavily on play-action and routinely sent a receiver or two running free through opposing secondaries. Ryan completed a career-high 69.9 percent of his attempts while ranking 10th in average pass length (8.65 yards). That’s a rare combination of aggressiveness and efficiency, and it was Shanahan and Ryan’s ability to strike the right balance between the two (and between each other) that turned this group into a defense-demolishing machine.
So far this fall, Atlanta has struggled to find that balance under Sarkisian. Ryan’s completion percentage has dipped to 65.9 percent (putting him on track to finish with his lowest mark since 2011), and his yards-per-attempt average has fallen down to 8.0. The Falcons sit at 12th in passing DVOA, which may not seem like a bad ranking, but represents a drastic fall to earth compared to the planet-destroying power that this group had in 2016.
The issues begin on first down. Atlanta scorched opponents on first-and-10 last season: Of Ryan’s 4,944 passing yards, nearly half (2,448) came on first down. He averaged 10.7 yards per attempt on those plays, meaning that when the Falcons threw on first down, it usually led to another first down. Shanahan consistently provided Ryan with straightforward, intermediate completions that took advantage of defenses’ tendency to line up with three linebackers—hampering coverage ability—on traditional running downs.
This season the Falcons are actually throwing on first down more than they did last year (49.3 percent of the time, compared to 47 percent), but they haven’t been nearly as efficient. Ryan has completed just 62.5 percent of his first-down throws with three interceptions, one short of his first-down total for the entire 2016 campaign. One of the key differences between this year’s offense and last year’s group—and a central reason Atlanta has struggled at times despite being able to move the ball down the field—is how often Ryan has thrown picks. On the season, 12.8 percent of the Falcons’ drives have ended with an interception. Only the Browns (19.7) have been worse.
Some of those turnovers have been the result of rotten luck, like the ball that bounced off Coleman’s hands and right into the waiting arms of Darius Slay in the Falcons’ 30-26 win against the Lions in Week 3. But more often than not, Ryan has paid for his mistakes. His first of three interceptions against Detroit came on the sort of first-down, play-action throw that the Falcons found great success on during the past two seasons. After faking a handoff to Coleman, Ryan came out of his drop, whipped his head around, and slung a pass to Julio Jones running a post from the left side. Only Ryan never saw Lions safety Glover Quin, who made a break for Jones from the moment that he saw the play fake.
A habit for being careless with the ball has been an issue for Ryan at times in his career. He’s thrown at least 14 picks in five seasons since being taken with the no. 3 pick in the 2008 draft; this year, he’s on pace to blow past that total and then some. But Ryan’s suspect decision-making isn’t solely responsible for the Falcons’ issues. Some are systemic to this passing game.
Take Ryan’s third-quarter throw to wideout Taylor Gabriel in a 23-17 loss to the Bills in Week 4, one that was picked off by cornerback Micah Hyde. Ryan faked a handoff on second-and-1, surveyed the field, and promptly launched the ball 50 yards down the field. Hyde easily moved under the throw and hauled it in, spoiling what was previously a promising Atlanta drive. That’s representative of the deep-ball problems that have plagued the Falcons all season. Ryan has completed four of 19 pass attempts that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air in 2017—the lowest completion rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF has also deemed that just 21.1 percent of those 20-plus-yard throws were accurate, also the worst mark in football. That latter stat is a complete reversal of fortunes from the way things unfolded last season, when only Minnesota’s Sam Bradford had a higher accuracy percentage on those throws than Ryan’s 57.1.
Atlanta’s offensive line has also taken a hit in pass protection. Ryan has been sacked 10 times in five games, and that doesn’t tell the whole story about how frequent doses of pressure have impacted even the throws that he has gotten off. The Falcons boasted the healthiest offensive line in the league last year, with all five starters playing for 16 games. This year right tackle Ryan Schraeder has already missed two games, and opposing defenses have taken advantage of backup Ty Sambrailo in his absence.
Having to play Sambrailo and Wes Schweitzer, in his first year starting at right guard, gives Atlanta two question marks on the right side of its line, and both the Lions and Bills fully exploited that. Buffalo hit Ryan eight times and sacked him once, and its ability to constantly push Ryan off his spot in the pocket and alter throws played a huge role in the Bills’ win. It was just another case in which a unit that had all the answers in 2016 was left searching for them this time around.
More glaring than Schraeder’s absence against Buffalo, though, was the absence of Julio Jones. The Falcons’ superhuman wide receiver missed the entire second half of that game with a hip injury, and with fellow wideout Mohamed Sanu on the shelf after injuring his hamstring, Atlanta was forced to turn to the likes of Justin Hardy and Nick Williams. Ryan’s backbreaking interception in the fourth quarter was intended for Williams, who was working in the middle of the field but couldn’t shake loose from Hyde. Getting Sanu (who’s practicing this week) back in the lineup should give Atlanta a much-needed boost in attacking the intermediate areas of the field, but the more pressing concern for these Falcons is getting more from their best offensive player.
Jones has been slowed by a hip flexor issue for most of the season, though it still feels as if arguably the best wide receiver on the planet hasn’t been getting the target share that he deserves. He has 37 targets on the season; that ranks 42nd in the league, just behind Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (who has 38, and like Jones, has played only five games). I’m spitballing here, but one way to possibly jump-start this passing game may be to feed the ball to the closest thing the NFL has to an actual centaur.
The other guy who should probably have a heavier workload than he does (and who could provide the Falcons with a spark if he gets one) is Coleman. He’s inflicted plenty of damage on the ground, but his role as a receiver has been slightly different than it was a season ago. One of the scariest looks the Falcons presented defenses with last season was the one that featured both Coleman and Freeman sharing the field, with Coleman acting as a receiver out of the slot. Atlanta has used variations of that setup this season, but it’d stand to benefit from making a concerted effort to get two of its three best playmakers on the field at once. Running backs shouldn’t be able to make the sort of catch Coleman does in the play below—and deploying him solely as a receiver out of the backfield rather than an option from all over the formation limits this unit’s ceiling.
Coleman’s snag against Buffalo was one of those promising moments this fall that harkened back to the Falcons’ passing game excellence last season. The 40-yard touchdown that Ryan uncorked to Marvin Hall in last week’s 20-17 loss to the Dolphins was reminiscent of the Ryan-to-Gabriel deep-ball artistry in 2016, and even with the occasional sputtering, it seems like Sark wants to make play-action devastation an integral part of his approach.
Atlanta led the league in play-action percentage last year, with 27.6 percent of Ryan’s dropbacks including a play fake, according to Pro Football Focus. The Falcons rank 15th in that stat this year, at just 22.4 percent. A stronger commitment to play-action is just one of the several tweaks that could help the Falcons find a form that more closely resembles what we saw in 2016.
Some of this group’s issues (such as Ryan’s troubles with the deep ball) may persist over the long term, but on the whole it seems as if the problems that are plaguing the Falcons’ passing game are fixable. Atlanta still has all the makings of the league’s scariest offense; if it can make a few adjustments, it should be right in the mix to contend in a wide-open NFC. As the Falcons prepare to visit a Patriots team with a shoddy pass defense, this may be just the week for that version of Atlanta’s passing game to emerge.