The Falcons had a stunning moment of déjà vu in Philadelphia on Thursday. The team drove 70 yards with the game on the line but stalled in a first-and-goal situation with under a minute left after Matt Ryan missed a last-second pass to Julio Jones as they lost to the Eagles, 18-12. It was a near-mirror image of their divisional-round loss in January, when the Falcons drove 74 yards with the game on the line in Philadelphia but stalled in a first-and-goal situation with under a minute left after Matt Ryan missed a last-second pass to Julio Jones, as they lost, 15-10.
Yet as similar as Atlanta’s red zone struggles felt, the games were completely different. Ryan, who signed a contract with $100 million in guarantees in May, looked atrocious throughout Thursday night’s contest, and whether it was a blip for the 2016 MVP could determine the Falcons’ season.
It started on the Falcons’ very first drive, which also ended in a goal-line stand, when Ryan missed running back Devonta Freeman on a makeable pass in the end zone.
Sark deserves heat for pulling Julio on the goal line but this is 6 with a decent throw pic.twitter.com/q4k9MWDoPo— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 7, 2018
The end of the game was far worse. With first-and-goal from the Eagles’ 10-yard line, Ryan threw four passes –– two to Jones –– and none were particularly close to staying in bounds. Those throws were all ugly:
- A toss way over Julio’s head.
- An errant ball after Ryan was hit while he was throwing.
- A ball that was closer to going to a fan behind the goalposts than a receiver.
- A ball that forced Jones way out of bounds to end the game.
In the third quarter, a deep pass that Jones initially bobbled but seemed like a catch was ruled an incompletion, but the play would have been an easy touchdown if Ryan had thrown it over the middle of the field. Instead, he led Julio to his outside shoulder.
Julio Jones bobbling catch pic.twitter.com/RRwUtcuHK9— TheRenderNFL (@TheRenderNFL) September 7, 2018
Later, Ryan underthrew Jones on a deep pass so badly that Jones stopped running as soon as he saw the ball. In addition to underthrowing Julio vertically, Ryan also threw behind his receivers, like this third-down play where Julio created plenty of separation, but Ryan placed the ball where cornerback Ronald Darby could make a play:
Route driving 101 by Ronald Darby v Julio Jones: pic.twitter.com/tej183nWyd— Dave Lackford (@RivalsDave) September 7, 2018
To be fair, Ryan may not have been 100 percent healthy. Just before halftime, Ryan messed up his knee brace on a slide, and trainers cut it off with scissors on the field during a timeout rather than fix it. If Ryan was dealing with a knee injury that was aggravated during the game, it could explain his deep inaccuracy.
Just as concerning as the bad throws was the bad decision-making. Ryan threw an interception on a possible miscommunication with Jones deep in Eagles territory down four points early in the fourth quarter. The interception will make the highlights because of how far it was from Jones, but even worse is that Ryan missed a wide-open receiver over the middle for a first down.
Rasul Douglas picks off Matt Ryan!pic.twitter.com/CFlwBIKbXW— LeadingNFL (@LeadingNFL) September 7, 2018
Not everything about this loss can be put on Ryan. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called some good plays but didn’t string together enough to call any good drives until the team’s two-minute drill at the end of the game. Atlanta’s aggressiveness on fourth down to open the game was smart, but the call to run from a heavy formation was questionable when putting more receivers on the field is both statistically a better idea and better suited to Atlanta’s personnel in that situation. As Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Stats noted:
Sark didn't even need to buy the book. This is free: https://t.co/l2tzGC72Rr pic.twitter.com/WoQbvcMkYn— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 7, 2018
Yet it doesn’t matter if Sarkisian’s play-calling improves if Ryan does not. He was inaccurate and seemed to have less velocity on his ball, which was heartbreaking to watch considering how dominant Julio Jones looked throughout (10 catches for 169 yards feels low). If Ryan is hurt, the Falcons could start in an early hole in what may be the NFL’s most competitive division with the Saints and the Panthers. If he was healthy and played like this, it’s far more concerning.