In an article from the National Football Post, writer Jeff Fedotin takes Atlanta Falcon’s quarterback Matt Ryan to task. He claims, with good reason, that Ryan isn’t playing at the clutch level as other young guns like Aaron Rodgers or even like Eli Manning. Sure he has produced some good regular season numbers, but on the big playoff stages he appears more like Matty Melt than Matty Ice.
One thing that Fedotin does not tackle is the root of the reason why Ryan has not been successful against the elite competition. Another writer tackles that from a more schematic standpoint. Noted NFL Author Greg Cosell wrote this piece talking about two quarterbacks who will need to step up in 2012: ex-Falcon Michael Vick, and current Falcons franchise QB Matt Ryan. This article is a must read.
In his article, Cosell compares Vick and Ryan’s respective styles of play, something I have rarely seen done. Obviously Vick is a QB who loves to get outside the pocket and run–he loves it too much. He leaves great passing plays on the field by vacating the pocket, inviting unwanted pressure from the defense, and not being quite as effective as he could be if he stayed in the pocket slightly longer and made his progressions to find the open receiver. As a result the Eagles’ offensive line looks absolutely atrocious, which could not be further from the truth.
Cosell points out that Ryan is in almost the exact opposite dilemma. There are a multitude of immobile quarterbacks, or guys who don’t move particularly well. Many of them are very good. Tom Brady can’t run to save his life, and neither can Peyton Manning. While they aren’t ultra athletic like Vick, Cam Newton, or Robert Griffin, they are excellent at maneuvering in the pocket, keeping their eyes down the field, and completing passes when the pocket isn’t completely clean. Through very good footwork and practice/experience passing under duress, these quarterbacks have been able to succeed even when they don’t have the strongest offensive line in the world.
This is where Cosell believes Ryan struggles. When he has a completely clean pocket, he plays like an All-Pro quarterback. Look at his performances where the Falcons scored a lot of points or won by a large margin. They were generally against bad teams, or in games where the defense couldn’t generate a pass-rush, or both. The only marquee matchup that Ryan won against a very good defense in 2011 Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was constantly under pressure and against a very good defensive secondary still threw 4 touchdown passes. But the fact remains, that Ryan struggles against tremendous pressure. I can’t speak to whether or not he is afraid of taking hits or what it is, but sometimes he gets a little happy-feet and doesn’t deliver the ball as effectively as possible. Cosell does recognize that the Falcons’ offensive line isn’t quite what is necessary to protect Ryan, so one cannot completely blame him, but the ‘elite’ QBs get it done without a stonewall in front of them.
It is clear that Cosell is a fan of Ryan and believes that he is extremely talented, a quality starter in the NFL, and that his skill set in every facet (yes, even arm strength) is more than enough to take the Falcons to the Big Game, and improve his statistics in the process. He only points to the need for Ryan to get better under pressure in a ‘muddied’ pocket as what is separating him from being a ‘quality starter’ or ‘elite’.
I think that this, along with his downfield passing are Ryan’s two big weaknesses. Ryan has a strong arm to make all the throws, but he still misses on deep passes. I have two reasons to believe that Ryan and the Falcons are working hard this offseason to remedy those two things.
First, I cite this article from ESPN’s Pat Yasinskas. In his article, Yaskinskas re-caps an interview with Ryan. In the interview, Ryan told Atlanta’s 790 The Zone that he has been working on bulking up in the weight room, as well as his downfield passing. I really like that he recognizes that the downfield passing isn’t where it needs to be. The additional bulking up through weight training will help him while in the pocket in two ways. First, he will not have to fear quite as much from taking hits: he will be stronger, able to handle them better, and able to not be affected quite as much by them. Secondly, his weight training will absolutely help his arm strength. I have all the faith in the world that his arm strength is sufficient, as guys with less that elite arm strength like Philip Rivers and Drew Brees are effective down-the-field passers. However, adding to his arm strength is certainly a good thing and it is possible that he can build his arm strength up to a borderline elite level. He will never rival Matthew Stafford in that department, but he will certainly improve.
There is also a schematic thing that will help Ryan not get destroyed in the pocket. Ryan acknowledged here that the offense needs to get better from an execution standpoint. Under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, I would expect the Falcons to utilize the screen pass more often, keeping defensive ends or blitzers from bearing down straight toward Ryan. I think that also the addition of Peter Konz and a healthy Sam Baker will help keep pressure off Ryan. I think that all of these things in combination make for Ryan staying clean in the pocket more often, taking the hits better when he is hit, stepping up in the face of pressure, and delivering the ball deep down the field to his receivers. These are the weaknesses in his game, but it is obvious that Ryan is taking steps to ensure he improves these aspects of this game. There is no doubt he will continue his development in 2012 and be better than he was in 2011, and I don’t think its too far a reach to say that he will ascend to the elite-tier of NFL quarterbacks in 2012.