Regression Looms Large Over Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan

A fractured fibula threatened Alex Mack’s Super Bowl. It was late January. Mack was playing football at this time of the year for the first time in his life. The injury was supposed to take 6-8 weeks to heal. He had two. A pain-killing injection and his own courage allowed Mack to play every snap of the Super Bowl.

That was Mack’s 19th start of the season. Every time he stepped on the field he was joined by the same guards and the same offensive tackles. Not once in 19 games did the Falcons need to start a sixth offensive lineman.

For as much as 28-3 now defines the Falcons season, the reality is that 95 percent of things that could have gone wrong for this team went right last year. Keeping all five linemen together and healthy for a full season is rare. Only two teams had their five starters play at least 90 percent of their snaps last year, the other was on the other end of 28-3. Two teams didn’t have a single starting lineman reach 90 percent of snaps, half the league didn’t have more than two starters reach 90 percent of snaps.

Keeping all five linemen on the field was huge for Shanahan’s offense. Shanahan builds his offense off of the running game. A staple of his running game is a heavy reliance on zone plays.

On zone plays the offensive line essentially builds a moving wall for the running back to run behind. That wall is built based on how the defense aligns on a given play. The linemen have to communicate their assignments and understand their responsibilities relative to each other once they see where each of their opponents are on the field. When you’re not rotating different linemen in and out of the lineup, it’s easier to create cohesion to execute plays as they’re supposed to be executed.

The Falcons can’t control the health of their linemen. It’s not like this is a skill. The chances of them keeping all five linemen healthy again in 2017 are very low.

Shanahan’s running game was one of the best in the league. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman perfectly fit how he wanted to use them, Freeman being the primary runner and Coleman being an often-unstoppable receiving option out of the backfield or from the slot. The running backs and the offensive line were the protagonists for the success of this offense more than the quarterback was.

Matt Ryan is a good quarterback. He has been a good quarterback for the majority of his career, 2015 was the exception. In 2016 he was a good quarterback who happened to be the quarterback of a great offense. The Falcons scored as many points per game (33.8) as ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’ and were by far the most efficient unit in the league. The success of the Falcons offense gave Ryan an MVP award but that shouldn’t be misconstrued to suggest that he is now one of the league’s great quarterbacks.

Regression is going to hit the Falcons hard. It’s going to hit Ryan especially hard.

Charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue revealed that Matt Ryan gained 31.37 percent of his yards after executing a play fake, no other quarterback eclipsed 22.84 percent. Shanahan’s commitment to hard play fakes made Ryan’s reads easier. He consistently turned around to see receivers running into vast amounts of space downfield. Those receivers would run routes that complemented each other and attacked the spaces that were fragile because of the hard play fake.

Shanahan’s commitment to play action was like no other coach in the league. 21.99 percent of Ryan’s attempts were play action passes, only Dak Prescott was even close to being close to him at 18.11 percent. Shanahan built an offense that used the strength of its line and running backs to exploit coverages on a weekly basis. Ryan’s job was made easier by a coach who didn’t want to stress his quarterback and who understood how to anticipate the coverages that opponents would rely on each week.

Ryan was getting easier reads and easier throws than he ever had in his career. He didn’t need to be great to have great statistics. Furthermore, his receiving corps rarely ever ruined his good plays and often made his bad plays work regardless.

Charting revealed that three quarterbacks—Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck—all lost receptions on accurate throws because of receiver error on more than 10 percent of their attempts. Put another way, they lost a completion to receiver error more than once every 10 attempts. Matt Ryan lost a reception to receiver error once every 18.06 attempts. Only 5.54 percent of his attempts were accurate throws that receivers ruined. Brian Hoyer, Jameis Winston, Kirk Cousins and Andy Dalton were the only quarterbacks hurt by their receivers more often than Ryan.

On the other side of this spectrum, 3.96 percent of Ryan’s passes were deemed inaccurate throws that the receiver managed to catch. Six quarterbacks saw an inaccurate throw turn into a completion more often. 7.70 percent of Ryan’s yards came on inaccurate throws that receivers turned into completions, that’s the sixth-highest rate in the league.

It’s hard to argue that the Falcons have great receivers. Julio Jones is phenomenal but Taylor Gabriel has only ever had success in Shanahan’s offense and the first time he did he constantly turned accurate passes into incompletions. Mohamed Sanu is a consistent catcher of the ball but nothing about his play is particularly special. Sanu is an excellent third option but not a true starting quality receiver.

A limited group of receivers can become consistent stars over the stretch of a single season but that consistency is unlikely to be sustained over years.

It wasn’t even just that Ryan’s skill position players were great at the catch point. They also regularly created huge yardage after the catch. 13.29 percent of his attempts gained at least 11 yards after the catch, the highest rate in the league by more than one percent. 3.80 percent of his attempts gained at least 21 yards after the catch, the highest rate in the league by 0.17 percent. Ryan also had the highest rate of throws where the ball didn’t reach the first down line in the air but resulted in a first down.

A big reason for this was the diversity of screen plays that Shanahan used and the packaged plays he used to give Ryan pre-snap options to set receivers up for big YAC plays. The chances of Steve Sarkisian replicating the impact, both in terms of severity and breadth, that Shanahan brought to the offense are minimal.

Surpassed the big benefits Ryan got from his supporting cast last year, he consistently relied on defenses to bail him out on interceptable passes.

An interceptable pass is a play where the quarterback gives the defense an opportunity to catch the ball. Ryan gave defenders an opportunity to catch the ball once every 27.48 attempts last year. 3.64 percent of his attempts were considered interceptable. Only 10 quarterbacks took care of the ball better. On paper that’s a really good position to be in. Considering the support he got from his offensive coordinator, it’s less impressive but still good.

Ryan’s problem comes when you look at how many of those interceptable passes were caught. He threw seven interceptions on 632 passes last year after throwing 16 on 614 the season prior. The biggest difference between those two years was Ryan being better at avoiding the egregious throws where he threw the ball directly to a defender standing in underneath coverage and the consistency of defenders catching the ball.

Only Brian Hoyer was luckier than Ryan last year. None of Hoyer’s four interceptable passes were caught. Four of Ryan’s 23 interceptable passes were caught. 17.39 percent of his interceptable passes were caught. The league average was 39.72 percent. Ryan threw three fewer interceptable passes than Philip Rivers but Rivers had 11 more caught because defenders caught his passes 57.69 percent of the time. Andrew Luck was even less fortunate, he had his interceptable passes caught 64.71 percent of the time.

Like with the health of the offensive line, this isn’t something the Falcons can control. They can’t make defenders miss more opportunities. When Ryan throws the ball directly to Luke Kuechly and he punches it into Julio Jones’ hands it’s got nothing to do with Ryan’s quality or Jones’ quality. It’s pure luck.

The point of Pre-Snap Reads charting is to separate the quarterback’s individual performance from his supporting cast, to isolate the things that the quarterback can control. In every measurement, Ryan’s supporting cast looked great and his fortune favored. Regression is inevitable when you have a historically good season but the severity of that regression still might be surprising.

28-3 diluted the Falcons season. It became a running joke. It was defined by a blown block, a bad play call and a fumble. Looking at the season in retrospect should be overwhelmingly positive. Even though the offense figures to enter a transition year with a new offensive coordinator, there are still positive signs on the defensive side to excite Falcons fans.

The defense ranked 26th in the league by DVOA last year. Objectively bad. However, when you consider that Dan Quinn relied on young, inexperienced players such as Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal as foundational pieces that ranking is less of an issue. When you consider that the unit got better as the season went on in spite of losing its best player, Desmond Trufant, to injury midway through the year.

Quinn developing young defenders, Trufant’s return and the additions of Dontari Poe and Takkarist McKinley should allow this defense to take a huge step forward in 2017.


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