The Atlanta Falcons don’t look like the same team that reached Super Bowl LI and quarterback Matt Ryan doesn’t look like the player that was named MVP in 2016. The offense is sputtering and they’ve lost back-to-back games to the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins, despite having a bye week in between.
What’s wrong with Atlanta and how come Matt Ryan looks like a different player? We spoke with David Choate of TheFalcoholic.com to learn more.
“[Ryan’s decline in production is] a combination of not having the open guys he needs, throwing the deep ball much less effectively than he did in 2016--he's the worst passer, accuracy-wise, in the NFL on deep balls--and some bad luck,” Choate writes. “Ryan's taken a few big hits behind this offensive line this year, but the bigger issue is that three or four of his throws been dropped, bobbed, or bounced to a defender and subsequently picked, killing drives and muddying Ryan's stat line.
“But ultimately, those are just a handful of throws..the Falcons aren't doing a great job of giving Ryan the kind of easy, open looks he feasted on in 2016, and he's struggling in turn to make the harder throws. Couple that with a little bit of a lack of balance on offense and Ryan's being asked to do a lot without the kind of help he needs to really thrive.”
Atlanta hired Steve Sarkisian to be the new offensive coordinator after Kyle Shanahan left for the head coaching job of the San Francisco 49ers so there are naturally some growing pains with the transition. While Shanahan was a master of getting players open in space for an easy delivery, Sarkisian is still learning how to blend Shanahan’s playbook with his own.
But beyond the new playbook, the Falcons skill players haven’t been stepping up to the task and the offensive line has had some struggles. They lost right tackle Ryan Schraeder for some time with a concussion, but he’s back now. Center Alex Mack is the best in the league at his position and left tackle Jake Matthews and left guard Andy Levitre are solid starters.
The Falcons right guard is Wes Schweitzer, their 2016 sixth round selection. He’s played every snap this year and has improved with each passing week. While he would have been the main point of vulnerability in the Falcons interior line that the Patriots linebackers would have targeted for potential blitzes, he’s quietly becoming a strong player for Atlanta.
“Wes Schweitzer at right guard is completely new to Patriots fans, but he's emerged as an unexpectedly good young player, and that has helped to stabilize an offensive line that badly needed him to step up,” Choate addes. “Jake Matthews has scuffled at left tackle a bit, but if Schweitzer continues to play well, this remains one of the better units in the NFL, and Schweitzer should help with that New England interior line.”
If the Falcons offensive line holds up, then Matt Ryan will have plenty of time to sit in the pocket and wait for one of his receivers to escape from the injured Patriots secondary. Schweitzer is a big key for that scenario and New England should test him early.
But even if the Patriots get through Schweitzer a few times, the Falcons remain a threat to move the football down the field in big chunks, which could be the demise of the Patriots defense. While the Bills and Dolphins were able to limit the Falcons big plays, the Patriots have really struggled in that category in 2017, allowing 16 plays of 30+ yards, the worst mark in the league.
“If you can force turnovers and keep the Falcons' big play ability limited, you can hold them in check and beat them,” Choate notes. “I don't see the Patriots as being able to do the latter and the former might be a little tough, too, so you're probably going to just need to outscore Atlanta.
“However, it is worth noting that both of these teams committed heavily to the run throughout the game, and that paid massive dividends. This defense is fast, physical, and light, and they do appear to wear down late in games. That creates opportunities for your passing game, and your passing game is already good enough to dominate.”
While the Patriots can’t be expected to stop the Falcons big plays, perhaps they can force a turnover or two to shift the tide- or they could control the clock to keep the football away from Atlanta’s offense.
The Patriots have been running the ball well in recent weeks, boosting their yards per rushing attempt from 3.51 YPC in weeks 1-3 to 4.64 YPC in weeks 4-6. Dion Lewis and Mike Gillislee have been playing well and they could be the key to wearing down the Falcons defense, controlling the tempo of the game, and setting up positive situations for Tom Brady and the Patriots passing attack.
New England can’t copy the exact game plan from the Bills or Dolphins, but they can certainly draw elements and incorporate it into their own success against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. If the Patriots can control the clock and have success running the ball, like Buffalo and Miami, then perhaps Tom Brady will have more time in the pocket to find all of his receivers and the play action pass will be more fruitful.