Clipped Wings? Detailing Why the Atlanta Falcons’ Offense Wasn’t as High-Flying in 2017

By: Blake Dowson | January 12, 2018

Kyle Shanahan is gone, and Matt Ryan is now a shell of his old self after the now-San Francisco 49ers head coach groomed him into an MVP a season ago, right? Well, not quite.

First off, Ryan has the Falcons playing into the second weekend of the NFC playoffs with a good shot at another trip to the NFC championship game. That hasn’t changed since last season.

This season has been different, though. Atlanta was winning by a margin of over two touchdowns during last season’s Super Bowl run; this year, that margin is down toward eight points per game. Ryan threw 38 touchdowns in 2016; this season, that total only reached 20.

So where’s the difference? Well, Steve Sarkisian is wearing the offensive coordinator headset this year, and the playcalling has been different than Shanahan’s. That’s just one difference, but it’s where we’ll start.

Play-Action Passes

Shanahan loves the play-action pass. The Falcons threw the second-most play-action passes in the NFL last season, and the 49ers ranked the same this season under the first-year head coach. And Ryan was really good in the play-action passing game in 2016, ranking sixth in QB rating in that category (109.8). That correlated to 26 big pass plays (20+ yards), 1,469 yards and nine touchdowns.

Ryan has been just as good this season on play-action, he just hasn’t had as many opportunities to put it on display. After throwing 143 times after a play fake last season, he did the same only 117 times this season — the 16th-highest total in the league. That in turn produced 18 big plays and five touchdowns.

The Falcons also didn’t spread the ball around as much off play-action this season. Julio Jones was the overwhelming favorite target for Ryan, throwing more than 35 percent of his play-action passes to him in 2017. Jones was one of four Falcons pass-catchers to have 10 or more targets off play-action. On the flipside, Ryan targeted six different receivers more than 10 times during his MVP season, while targeting Jones just 25 percent of the time.

The bigger emphasis on getting the ball to Jones seemed to be a theme this season.

(Not) Spreading the Wealth

Jones was targeted on 28 percent of Ryan’s passes overall this season, the fourth-highest percentage in the entire league. Only DeAndre Hopkins (34 percent), A.J. Green (29) and Antonio Brown (28) were targeted more. Jones’ 148 targets were 19 more than his 2016 total.

In line with Jones’ upped usage, Ryan threw the ball less to his other receivers this season. The Falcons had eight players catch at least 12 passes. Conversely, Atlanta had 10 players with at least 13 catches a season ago, when its two main running backs — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — were highly involved in the passing game. Those two combined for 85 catches, 883 yards and five touchdowns a season ago, while hauling in 63 catches, 616 yards and four TDs this season.

The same has been true for the Falcons’ deep passing game — passes traveling 21 or more air yards downfield. Ryan was historically good in that department in 2016 with a 133.1 QB rating, easily the best in the NFL. His 1,018 yards were second most in the NFL. His 47.3 completion percentage and nine touchdown passes on those throws were both third best in the league, while he was one of only four quarterbacks with at least 20 deep pass attempts to not throw an interception. Matty Ice’s success was spread around to a number of receivers, namely Jones, speedster Taylor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper. Jones did what you would expect him to do: 11 catches for 381 yards on 30 targets. Gabriel was a good addition in 2016 for Atlanta, catching seven deep balls on seven targets for 213 yards and three touchdowns. Hooper added 120 yards on deep balls.

Ryan’s completion percentage on those same throws dropped to 26 percent this season, while only connecting for 492 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

So what was different this season?

Ryan was pressured on over 41 percent of his deep throws this season, up from 34 percent in 2016. That’s part of it.

Another was the reluctance of Ryan to throw the ball deep to anyone other than Jones. Ryan targeted Jones on an astonishing 63 percent of his deep throws, by far the highest percentage in the league (T.Y. Hilton was second at 51 percent). The abundance of targets led to 10 catches for 328 yards, but didn’t leave much production for anyone else, considering Ryan only connected on 14 deep balls all season. Gabriel didn’t catch any of his seven deep targets this season, and Hooper didn’t catch a single deep ball after Week 1.

The Falcons used Jones more this season, but they also used him differently.

Julio’s Changing Route Tree

Jones caught 12 passes on 17 targets running a post route in 2016 for 364 yards. No one else in the league gained more than 250 yards on the post route. In 2017, he caught three passes on seven targets for 51 yards on that route. He was also extremely successful running out routes in 2016, being targeted 11 times and catching nine of those for 142 yards. In 2017, he was targeted more (13 times), but only caught five out routes for 61 yards.

That’s only half the story, however. Jones did, in fact, have more receiving yards in 2017 than he did in 2016. So he had success on other routes.

One of those was the corner route. After only being targeted six times on that route in 2016, Jones was targeted 13 times on the corner route this season and caught 12 for 145 yards. He was also much more efficient running the curl route, as you can see below:

It’s not all about what the Falcons are doing differently on offense, however. Defenses have made adjustments to their high-flying attack.

Changing Defenses

Opposing teams have made a collective effort to get at Ryan more, hurrying him on 17.5 percent of his completions this season, a number that was 11.5 percent last year.

A big part of that has been first down blitzes. In 2016, defenses brought five or more defenders on first down 45 times out of Ryan’s 229 dropbacks (19.6 percent). Ryan’s subsequent first-down totals looked like this: 156-229 (68 percent)/2,448 yards/14 TDs/4 INTs/116.5 QB rating.

This season, defenses brought five or more on first down almost 28 percent of the time, and Ryan’s numbers took a hit along with him: 142-216 (65)/1,830 yards/9 TDs/6 INTs/94.5 QB rating.

Matt Ryan might not have played like an MVP this season. But the 10-year veteran still threw for over 4,000 yards and has his team in the NFC Divisional Round, where they’re favored to make it back to the NFC title game.

His numbers this season compared to last have as much to do with learning a new offense as anything else. His numbers in his first season under Kyle Shanahan’s tutelage, 2015, look more like his 2017 season than his 2016 MVP season.

Although his 2016 season may be an outlier, his numbers this season don’t point to a career decline.