- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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A weekly examination of the Falcons' quarterback play.
Rewind: Matt Ryan proved his value in a 31-23 win over the Buccaneers. Working without both Julio Jones and Roddy White, the quarterback managed to post a career-best passer rating of 148.4 while completing 20 of 26 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. He found a vertical threat in Harry Douglas (seven catches for a career-high 149 yards) and had success even while targeting tight end Tony Gonzalez just four times. It helped that the offensive line kept Ryan upright by not allowing a sack. It gave Ryan enough time to look down the field. For the season, Ryan has the league’s third-best passer rating at 105.9, behind Peyton Manning (123.3) and Philip Rivers(111.1). Ryan earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his effort.
Fast-forward: Of course, Ryan is more than capable of beating teams with his arm. However, he’ll need more of a running game behind him if the Falcons truly want to make a playoff push. Getting Steven Jackson back might help, and Jackson is scheduled to return to practice Wednesday off a hamstring injury. But Jackson might not play against Arizona on Sunday. Besides, the Cardinals boast the league’s seventh-best run defense, allowing just 97 rushing yards per game.
Rookie rising: Ryan might have a new weapon at his disposal. Rookie receiver Darius Johnson, just promoted from the practice squad Saturday with White ailing, played a surprising 35 of 46 offensive snaps in the last game and caught two passes for 24 yards while being targeted three times. If Johnson continues to gain Ryan’s trust, the Falcons might have no other option but to keep Johnson on the active roster even when White returns from a hamstring injury.
Prediction: Ryan might not have the same success in Arizona as he did against Tampa Bay. The Cardinals get after the passer and have a shutdown corner in Patrick Peterson. But Ryan will do enough to make it three straight wins over the Cardinals and move the Falcons closer to .500. And he’ll target Gonzalez more than four times in this game.