There is still plenty to watch for in the NFC South in the last two weeks of the NFL season. Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons are right at the forefront of that, as they head on the road to face the rival New Orleans Saints in Week 16, and have the Carolina Panthers in the last week of the regular season. Atlanta is currently slated as the last seed in the NFC, but they have not gained many style points in how they’ve gotten to this point. Their offense has taken a big step back in 2017, and that’s evidenced by the play of Ryan. For the Falcons to make the playoffs (and make noise if they get there), they’ll need their quarterback to return to his 2016 MVP form.
Last season was a perfect storm for the Falcons offense and Ryan. He had his best season, with 4,944 passing yards and 38 touchdowns to go with just seven interceptions, according to ESPN NFL Player Statistics. He also led the league in passer rating and passing touchdown percentage, according to Pro Football Reference. Along with that, he had the most yards per passing attempt (with a minimum of 500 throws) in NFL history, ESPN Stats & Info reports.
Matt Ryan averaged the most yards per attempt (min. 500 passes) in NFL history: 9.26. That mark was held by Aaron Rodgers (9.25 in 2011).
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 20, 2017
This year has been much different for Ryan and the Falcons offense as a whole. The 2016 NFL MVP has just 18 touchdowns, as well as 11 interceptions in only 14 games, while they have not hit their stride consistently in 2017. The departure of masterful offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) is likely a major reason for the drop in production for Atlanta’s offense. The Falcons have not featured superstar wide receiver Julio Jones enough, especially in the redzone.
Jones led the NFL in receiving yards per game last season, according to Pro Football Reference, and he’s still third in the league this year in that metric. However, he only has three receiving touchdowns in 2017, and his 14 redzone targets rank just 25th in the league. Jones is arguably the best receiver in the league, and Ryan needs to find a way to get the ball in scoring position more frequently if they are going to beat the Saints and Panthers, let alone win playoff games. That lack of production is part of the reason Atlanta is just 15th in points per game, compared to first in 2016, according to ESPN NFL Team Statistics.
Although the Falcons have two very capable running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta get more production out of Ryan against quality opponents. Both of Atlanta’s backs have had their injury troubles this year, and the QB needs to show he can shoulder the load. He did not have a good game through the air last night against an injury-riddled Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense, and the Saints and Panthers are in a different league than the Bucs. He’ll need to cut down on his turnovers and get the ball out quicker to his playmakers.
The Saints have one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Cameron Jordan, who has been impossible to block, and they have the fourth-most interceptions in the league. That will be a major challenge, especially on the road against a New Orleans team looking to avenge a rough loss to Atlanta earlier this month. In the next week, Carolina’s ferocious front-seven will be another tough defense to handle for 60 minutes. If the Falcons are going to get in the postseason, they’ll need to earn it. Ryan is the key to that, and him returning to MVP form would certainly help.