2016 NFL Preview: For Falcons to improve, Matt Ryan has to rebound

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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If you fell into a coma on Oct. 12 and woke up early on Dec. 20, you’d think the Atlanta Falcons were the NFL’s best team in 2015.

After beating the Washington Redskins on Oct. 11, the Falcons were 5-0. Their wins weren’t bad either: Philadelphia, at the Giants, at Dallas, Houston and Washington. They led Houston, who would go on to win the AFC South, 42-0 after three quarters. Then on Dec. 20 they won at the Jacksonville Jaguars and a week later became the only team to beat the Carolina Panthers in the regular season. They lost the finale to the New Orleans Saints on the last play of the season.

Between the good stuff? It was awful. The Falcons lost seven of eight with the only win a 10-7 victory over a bad Tennessee Titans team that had to start Zach Mettenberger at quarterback. It’s hard to go from 5-0 to being practically eliminated from the playoffs with two games to go, but the Falcons pulled it off.

So what can we expect from the Falcons this season? The answer probably is the same as the one to this question: What can we expect from Matt Ryan?

It’s too simplistic to tie a team’s fortunes entirely to its quarterback because football is the ultimate team game, but Ryan has gone from “consistent top-10 quarterback” to “he’s 31 and coming off three so-so years.” Last season was alarming. Ryan threw just 21 touchdowns on 614 attempts, a horrible rate when you consider he threw more than 200 times to the great Julio Jones. He had 16 interceptions, including three inside his own 20-yard line and four in the opponent’s red zone. Most interceptions are devastating, but the ones near either end zone will ruin your team.

With less than two minutes left in the season finale, with Atlanta at its own 24 in a tie game, Ryan threw way too late over the middle of the field to Devonta Freeman. Even worse, the pass was into double coverage because Ryan apparently never saw the linebacker lurking. The Saints had an easy interception and eventually kicked a field goal on the final play. It was a mistake a quarterback with 126 NFL starts can’t make. It was Ryan’s last pass, and it summed up his season.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Ryan’s peak was 2012, when the Falcons almost went to the Super Bowl. Don’t overreact in 2016 and think Ryan is bad. He’s still a good quarterback. The Falcons would have a really tough time finding anyone better, for sure. But now off three good-but-not-great seasons, at age 31, the thought that Ryan can become a special quarterback has probably come and gone.

That’s troubling because the Falcons have so many other holes. Jones saw 203 targets because the Falcons have very few reliable targets other than him. Aside from cornerback Desmond Trufant, there’s still not a proven difference maker on defense. Ryan’s supporting cast isn’t very good, which means there’s a lot of pressure on Ryan to return to a Pro Bowl level.

But if this is Ryan’s new level of play going forward, we’re more likely to see the mid-October to mid-December version of the Falcons than the one that started 5-0 or outplayed the 15-1 Panthers.

Matt Ryan is coming off a disappointing 2015 (AP)
Matt Ryan is coming off a disappointing 2015 (AP)

Signing center Alex Mack from the Browns was a nice move. The Falcons’ offensive line — led by left tackle Jake Matthews, who made huge strides in 2015 after a tough rookie season — looks much better than it did a couple years ago. I like the under-the-radar signing of former Miami Dolphins end Derrick Shelby. I wasn’t so keen on giving Mohamed Sanu a five-year, $32.5 million deal, but the free-agent market at receiver was awful and the Falcons needed someone. Safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones, the team’s first two picks, could make an immediate impact. Grade: B-

You don’t go 5-0, or beat the 2015 Panthers, if you’re a hopeless team. The Falcons went 8-8 with Matt Ryan playing his worst season in many years. You have to assume Ryan rebounds at least a bit. The running game should be productive, Jones is as good as any player in the NFL, and coach Dan Quinn is adding pieces to his defense. Basically forget that terrible mid-season stretch last year, and you have a reason for hope.

In the NFL, you need to rush the quarterback. The Falcons are impossibly inept at it. They had 19 sacks last season. Nineteen. Last season, 27 teams had at least 31 sacks. And two years ago Atlanta had just 22 sacks, so this isn’t a new issue. The Falcons have had 41 sacks the last two seasons combined. Last season alone, 11 NFL teams registered at least 41 sacks. If you can’t rush the quarterback, nothing else works. And when you look at the Falcons’ roster, it’s not clear where the pass rush will come from this season.

Ryan joined the $100 million club with a contract extension in 2013, and that coincided with his dip in production. After this season he’ll have two more years to go on his deal with about $35 million in base salary due, which is actually relatively cheap for a starting quarterback these days. Could the Falcons possibly move on from Ryan after this season if he doesn’t play better? It’s hard to believe they would, because finding a quarterback as good as Ryan is incredibly hard. If you don’t have a quarterback you’re constantly overpaying, in money or draft picks, to get one. But it might get interesting by 2018, the final year of Ryan’s deal, if he doesn’t recapture his 2012 form by then.

This one is easy: Vic Beasley. I’m curious to see how the Falcons employ Beasley after moving him from defensive end to strong-side linebacker. It’s fine if Beasley will be rushing the quarterback most of the time, just from a two-point stance. The move seems tied to Beasley’s lack of size against the run, which was a detriment at defensive end. But they drafted Beasley eighth overall last year to be a top pass rusher, not a part-time rusher who spends half his snaps dropping and floating around in coverage. The problem is Beasley wasn’t a good pass rusher in an injury-filled 2015, though it usually takes a while for pass rushers to develop. The Falcons desperately need Beasley to be a double-digit sack player. It’ll be interesting to see how he is used.

Cosell: “They were getting used to Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which really features under-center play action. As the season progressed, I thought Matt Ryan at times wasn’t real comfortable turning his back to the defense. That’s not an easy thing to do, and some quarterbacks are more comfortable than others. There were times Matt Ryan made some uncharacteristic mistakes in critical situations. I can think of an interception he threw in the red zone, I believe against Indianapolis. It was play action, he turned his back, everything is faster in the red zone, I guarantee he thought he had his receiver wide open and he threw it right to a linebacker. I just thought he was not as comfortable a player down the stretch.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Falcons and the rest of the NFC South]

From Yahoo’s Brandon Funston: “The Falcons are gambling that former Bengals wideout Mohamed Sanu can breathe life back into the team’s passing game after veteran Roddy White hit a career wall last season. For years, Matt Ryan had some combo of dynamic options Julio Jones, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez at his disposal. But with Gonzo gone and White on his last legs, Ryan finished 2015 outside the top 12 among quarterbacks (No. 19) in Yahoo fantasy scoring for the first time since 2009. With uninspiring options behind Jones and Sanu in Atlanta’s receiving corps, Sanu could very well see a career high target volume — his previous high was 99 in 2014 when he was pushed into an elevated role in Cincy because of injuries to Marvin Jones and A.J. Green. Sanu did finish as a top-35 fantasy wideout that season, but he also led the NFL in drops.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Devonta Freeman had a nice 2015, but he wore down. Freeman had four 100-yard games and an 88-yard game by midseason. He didn’t have more than 76 rushing yards in any of Atlanta’s last eight games. In the second half of the season Freeman played seven games and was inactive for one, and had 347 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns on 113 attempts. That’s 3.1 yards per carry. Freeman had 265 carries last season and 2015 rookie Tevin Coleman had 87, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see closer to a 50-50 split this season. Coleman’s major issue is he’s nowhere near as adept in the passing game as Freeman, who had 73 receptions last season.

IS JULIO JONES THE BEST PLAYER IN THE NFL?

In the NFL Network’s Top 100 players show, Jones ranked eighth. That might be too low. It’s almost impossible to compare quarterbacks and non-quarterbacks, given how valuable quarterbacks are, and if you remove signal callers Jones has a pretty good argument for the top spot. His numbers last season are incredible: 136 catches, 1,871 yards and nine 100-yard games. He had one game with fewer than five catches or 56 yards, and that was a 4-38-0 line in a blowout win against the Texans. He’s big, fast, explosive and reliable. I’d pick J.J. Watt ahead of Jones, and you can make cases for Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Donald ahead of Jones too, but I can understand why someone would pick Jones as the best non-quarterback in the NFL. He’s a generational talent.

Matt Ryan was in a new offense in 2015, learning coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. If Ryan looks more comfortable in Shanahan’s second season, the run game is consistent and Julio Jones stays healthy the offense should be fine. The defense doesn’t look great on paper, but if Vic Beasley makes a quantum leap and the players adapt better to Dan Quinn’s defense (or if Quinn and his staff can scheme up more pressure), maybe there will be some improvement there. The Falcons went 8-8 last season so it isn’t too crazy to think they could have a winning season if things go right.

What happens if Jones goes down? He has played all 16 games just twice in five seasons. Sanu is nowhere close to being a No. 1 receiver, and nobody else on the Falcons is either. There probably won’t be a lot of help from the tight ends either. Without Jones, Ryan would be throwing to a lackluster group of targets and it’s hard to see how that turns out well for him. The Falcons had a 1-7 stretch last year, and that was with Jones in the lineup every game, so we’ve seen a nightmare scenario already.

I think the Falcons take a step back from 8-8, but they won’t fall apart. They did some things pretty well last season. If there’s a better pass rush and they can even out a turnover margin that was minus-7 last season, they’ll be competitive. But the schedule is a lot tougher this season and even if they’re a better team, it’ll be tough to go .500 again.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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