Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan

 Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Falcons want to be a balanced offense, but are at their best when Matt Ryan is throwing deep.
There seems to be quite a bit of optimism about the Atlanta Falcons boasting a more balanced offensive attack this season. One skill-position player even told me he expects it to be "50-50" in terms of run and pass plays.

Sounds nice, but I'm not buying it.

Even if the Falcons come out running in the preseason, I won't believe in such balance until I see it during a meaningful game. I won't subscribe to it until I see a conscious effort to run the ball in the first quarter or on first down.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has acknowledged a renewed emphasis on the run game. But a crafty playcaller such as Koetter knows protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and allowing him to sling the ball to the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White is what helped the Falcons get one step from the Super Bowl two years ago. It's the same type of aggressive attack I expect will allow the Falcons to rebound from last year's 4-12 implosion and get back into playoff contention -- if the defense can at least contain opposing offenses.

New offensive line coach Mike Tice put it best when I spoke with him during organized team activities.

"We're not going to be a run-first football team, by any means, with those two great receivers and that great quarterback," Tice said bluntly. "But when that man -- my buddy Dirk Koetter -- dials up the run, we better be able to run it for four yards."

I'm by no means suggesting this will be a repeat of last season, when Ryan attempted a career-high 651 passes and the Falcons averaged a mere 3.9 yards per carry on a league-low 321 rushing attempts. The Falcons played their share of games from behind, forcing Ryan into even more throwing situations, and the ground game was barely existent to begin with, particularly after Steven Jackson was slowed by a hamstring injury.

I expect Ryan to be among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards for a third consecutive season. I just think he will put up those numbers under better circumstances. I expect we'll see more of the Ryan we saw in San Francisco last season, when he carved up the 49ers, completing 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards and two scores. I also expect the Falcons to be among the league's top 10 in scoring, like they were in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (fifth, seventh and seventh, respectively). Last season, they dipped to 20th with an average of 22.1 points per game.

Of course, Ryan and the offense have to be smart and take what opposing defenses give them. It's just hard to imagine them running the ball down a team’s throat the entire game.

A lot depends on the new-look offensive line. We should get a better feel for the unit during training camp, particularly when the Falcons have their joint practices with the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans. But the Falcons didn't sign Jon Asamoah and draft Jake Matthews with the intent of becoming a grind-it-out team. It's about protecting Ryan and giving him adequate time to find his receivers and go deep. And his deep ball has been on point this offseason. Just ask undrafted rookie receiver Bernard Reedy, the recipient of many of those sharp throws.

Ryan was pressured on a league-high 204 of his dropbacks last season. That can't happen again. The line has to hold its own, even with the intense pressure it will face in the NFC South from the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers.

There are other variables to consider. Will Jones return to full form after a second surgery on his right foot? Will White avoid the nagging injuries that plagued him last season? Will tight end Levine Toilolo's contribution in the red zone make Tony Gonzalez a distant memory? Will left tackle Sam Baker's left knee hold up an entire season?

If the answer to at least the first two of those questions is "yes," then I see no reason why the Falcons shouldn't have success through the air.

I'm not disregarding the contribution of the running backs in the grand scheme. Tice brought in some new running concepts from his years of expertise. I believe Jackson has one more solid year left in him. I believe rookie Devonta Freeman can have an immediate impact. And I believe Jacquizz Rodgers has great value in the screen game, which is essentially an extension of the run.

But when it comes to the Falcons' offensive success this season, I'll simply take a pass.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will address the media Thursday, the last day of the team's three-day minicamp.

He'll talk about what the offense accomplished through the week. He'll praise the play of the players around him and probably single out impressive undrafted rookie receiver Bernard Reedy.

And Ryan certainly will have positive things to say about his new teammate, quarterback T.J. Yates, even if he's not too familiar with him. Yates was acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans on Wednesday in exchange for linebacker Akeem Dent.

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Here's what Ryan should say: "With the revamped offensive line in front of me, I'm confident I'll play in all 16 games and the playoffs because we plan to be back in the postseason picture."

Yes, Yates makes for a cute storyline. He's the local player from Marietta, Georgia, who is coming home to add some stability behind Ryan. He earned a little name recognition as a rookie after helping Houston to a 31-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2011 playoffs -- the Texans' first-ever postseason win.

But if the Falcons have to turn to Yates, Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree, rookie Jeff Mathews or whomever the backup quarterback might be, they'll probably be in trouble.

The Falcons obviously weren't content with the backup situation. It was evident immediately after last season concluded. There were whispers about the need for a veteran quarterback. There was even talk about Luke McCown returning to the Falcons if he didn't re-sign with the Saints, but he stayed in New Orleans.

Head coach Mike Smith made those quarterback-depth concerns clearer this week when he declared the backup job "wide open" after Renfree got some second-team snaps. Davis had the role last season and got injured in the one game he played at Tampa Bay, when the Buccaneers routed the Falcons and the coaches pulled Ryan to keep him from getting killed.

The Falcons also knew they couldn't go through another season watching Ryan getting banged around like a pinball. That's why they spent money in free agency and brought in starting right guard Jon Asamoah. That's why they drafted Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M to start at right tackle.

Those investments, plus the hiring of offensive line coach Mike Tice to bring toughness up front, were all about keeping Ryan upright and healthy during the 2014 season.

Sure, it's great to have solid insurance. Maybe Yates will provide it, although he still has to come in and prove himself after losing out to Ryan Fitzpatrick in Houston. Whatever happens, acquiring an experienced quarterback with a playoff win under his belt in exchange for a linebacker who no longer seemed to be a key member of the defense was a worthwhile tradeoff.

It should be an interesting competition for the backup role, and Davis should come out firing Thursday, if he still has a chance to remain the backup.

But again, the focus for the Falcons should be all about Ryan. Experts such as former NFL executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian believe Ryan is a Super Bowl away from joining the elite. The Falcons were one step away from the Super Bowl two years ago. If Ryan is healthy and protected and has his full arsenal of receivers, including Julio Jones, then the Falcons have a chance to extinguish last year's dismal 4-12 showing.

They shouldn't be counting on their backup plan.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hasn't thrown a deep ball to Julio Jones in a game or practice since October of last year.

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That being said, it's fair to wonder how long it will take Ryan and his top receiver to reestablish the rhythm they developed before Jones went down with a season-ending right foot fracture. Jones, who had his foot surgically repaired, isn't expected to be full-go until training camp. This offseason, Ryan has spent most his time throwing to guys such as Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, and Darius Johnson.

Ryan was asked if he believes he'll be back in rhythm with Jones immediately.

"Yeah, I think so," Ryan said. "Our biggest thing, and Coach (Mike) Smith talks about it all the time, is getting to Week 1 with our guys fresh; fresh and healthy. Each offseason is different. Some years, you have guys that are healthy during May and June. And some years, you have guys that are recovering from stuff from last year.

"Julio's been in this building pretty much every day this offseason. While he hasn't been able to be out on the practice field with us yet, we communicate a lot. We've talked a lot. Certainly have watched film together and tried to work on things in the classroom so that when we do get the opportunity on the field, we can hit the ground running."

In an interview with SI.com on Monday, Jones said he fully expects to be ready for Week 1, when the Falcons open the season against the rival New Orleans Saints (Sept.7). He has been declared ahead of schedule several times.

"I certainly think when he gets back, whenever that is and as we get closer to training camp, we're going to have plenty of time to gel up and make sure that we're on the same page," Ryan said.

Ryan has thrown some balls to Jones on the practice field.

"Obviously, during the (organized team activities) portion of it, he's not allowed to be on the field with us," Ryan said. "There's been different times when he's been out working on his hands and stuff like that. And, I think he looks good."
The Atlanta Falcons haven't officially put out their list of signed undrafted free agents, but plenty of names of signed players circulated immediately after the draft.

One of those names is Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews, a player the school's website dedicated a page to in order to send him off on his NFL journey.

The 6-foot-4, 229-Mathews completed 901 of 1,447 passes for 11,284 yards and 72 touchdowns with 42 interceptions in 38 games at Cornell. He was the 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year and the most prolific passer in Ivy League history.

The Falcons decided not to draft a quarterback this season behind Matt Ryan, but Mathews essentially was their late-round pick. Backup Dominique Davis and Sean Renfree, last year's seventh-round pick from Duke, are the quarterbacks currently on the roster. Renfree was on injured reserve last season with a shoulder injury.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff talked Saturday about not drafting a quarterback this year, although it was evident he already had Mathews in mind.

"Obviously we drafted last year, which was important for us," Dimitroff said. "We like were our quarterback situation is as far as the developmental side. We'll always look at that. I don't necessarily buy into the philosophy that you have to take a quarterback every draft. I think it's from year to year and from situation to situation. ...We will have to add one quarterback to our group to come in and be there for camp."

Mathews is known for his strong, accurate arm but doesn't have much athleticism. Footwork also is an issue he has to overcome, according to scouting reports. He'll have the chance to show off his skills when the Falcons begin their rookie minicamp Friday.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add a veteran quarterback at some point.
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons had a plan all along, and the plan worked out in the end.

For all the talk about possibly trading up to the No. 1 overall selection to pick coveted pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, I don't believe that was truly ever in play. Of course the team wouldn't admit it because general manager Thomas Dimitroff never wants to proclaim himself closed for business, but the Falcons knew what the priority was.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJake Matthews is ready to step in to a Falcons offensive line that was constantly under attack last season.
They knew they needed to get tougher along the offensive line. They knew protecting Matt Ryan and improving the league-worst rushing offense had to be the focus of their attention.

So I have no doubt the Falcons went into Thursday night's NFL draft intent on drafting an offensive tackle, and they might have secured the best of the bunch. Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and the cousin of Green Bay Packers pass-rush demon Clay Matthews, is now a member of the Falcons family. He was available at No. 6 as the Falcons stayed put.

"We talked throughout this process about improving our team with tough, rugged football players and Jake Matthews epitomizes exactly what we were looking for," Dimitroff said. "He is a solid finisher and has good pass protection skills. He is the type of player that we are always looking for here in Atlanta -- guys who are willing to work and those who come in and embrace the team concept."

The Falcons, with an offseason theme of getting bigger and stronger, made it a point to address some of their offensive line concerns via free agency, bringing in Jon Asamoah to start at right guard. Now bringing in a tackle capable of playing on either side should help the offense flow a little more smoothly.

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times last season and was banged up a lot more than he let on by season's end. The deep ball was missing because Ryan never had much time to throw and he lost top receiver Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury five games into the campaign. Turning to the run game wasn't an option, as Steven Jackson was slowed out the gate with a hamstring injury and the Falcons, as a team, averaged just 77.9 rushing yards per game.

Matthews is known as a technician, so it shouldn't take him long to adapt to the NFL. Of course, he'll go up against speedy and powerful pass-rushers in the NFC South with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy from Carolina, Michael Johnson from Tampa Bay, and Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette from New Orleans. But he already vowed to work on some aspects of his game, including getting stronger in the weight room.

"As a coach, you always want to work with guys who love football and Jake Matthews loves football," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "As we were doing our due diligence, we had a number of people tell us about Jake's work ethic, his study habits and his passion for the game. He fits the bill for the kind of player we want on our team.”
Maybe Matt Ryan will silence some of his doubters with a spectacular showing in 2014.

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Until then, folks will continue debate Ryan’s standing among the league’s top quarterbacks. The $100 million man’s status became a hot topic of conversation this offseason after retiring teammate Tony Gonzalez said Ryan wasn’t quite in the elite category of quarterbacks along with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Gonzalez maintained his comments weren’t meant as an insult to his close friend.

ESPN analyst Bill Polian, who served as president and general manager of the Indianapolis Colts during the Manning years, knows all about being around an elite quarterback. And Polian believes firmly believes Ryan is right there.

``I think he’s a Super Bowl (win) away from being elite,’’ Polian said recently. ``He’s very close.’’

Brady, Manning, Brees and Rodgers all have Super Bowl rings, with Brady winning three. Ryan, who is preparing for his seventh NFL season, is 1-4 in playoff games. He fell short of the Super Bowl during the 2012 season when the Falcons lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24, in the NFC Championship Game.

In dissecting Ryan’s overall game, Polian doesn’t see many flaws.

``I like his release, I like his arm strength, I like his accuracy, I like his touch,’’ Polian said. ``I like his poise. I like his ability to extend plays. And I like his toughness.’’

Ryan showed his toughness last season while playing all 16 games and not complaining about being banged-up. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan led the league with 204 dropbacks while pressured -- sacked, forced to scramble, hit while throwing or put under duress -- with the next closest quarterback being Seattle's Russell Wilson with 184. Ryan also led the league with 702 dropbacks.

The Falcons hope bolstering the offensive line with burly right guard Jon Asamoah and possibly a top offensive tackle prospect in the draft will help keep Ryan upright and allow him to play at a high level. Of course, the return of top receiver Julio Jones from foot surgery should only help the cause. But Gonzalez will be impossible to replace, which is why the Falcons need to establish more offensive balance with a strong running game.

If Ryan consistently performs like he did in last year’s loss at San Francisco -- when he picked apart one of the league’s best defenses to the tune of 348 yards and two touchdowns while completing a career-high 38 passes (47 attempts) and being sacked just once -- maybe the Falcons will be closer to being Super Bowl contenders than some might believe.

Franchise/transition tags: Falcons

February, 17, 2014
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The franchise tag might have entered into play for the Atlanta Falcons this season had Matt Ryan's contract been an issue.

It isn't.

The quarterback was locked up prior to last season with a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension that included $59 million guaranteed. It kept 2013 from being the final year of his original six-year, $72 million rookie contract ($34.74 million guaranteed).

In others words, it won't be a concern for the Falcons once the first day for designating the franchise tag on a player comes Monday. The last time the Falcons used the franchise tag was on cornerback Brett Grimes in 2012 -- at a one-year price of $10.28 million -- as the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. Grimes, who suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury that year, now faces the possibility of being tagged again as the member of the Miami Dolphins.

As for the Falcons, they have no reason to designate a franchise player this year among a group of impending unrestricted free agents that includes defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters. Some of the others bound for free agency include center Joe Hawley, tight end Chase Coffman and offensive tackle Mike Johnson. Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. on March 11, although teams are allowed to negotiating with agents of players on other teams on March 9.

Maybe the franchise tag comes into play for the Falcons again if for some reason they can't get top receiver Julio Jones signed to a long-term deal before the 2015 season.

The deadline for designating franchise or transition players is 4 p.m. March 3. Eight players were slapped with the franchise tag last season.

Once a team designates a franchise player, it has until July 15 to work out a long-term extension with that player.

And once again, that shouldn't apply to the Falcons this year.
For days to come, folks are sure to continue to dissect Tony Gonzalez's words in an ESPN The Magazine piece by senior writer Seth Wickersham, set to hit newsstands Friday.

Gonzalez's comment about Atlanta Falcons teammate Matt Ryan not quite being an elite quarterback grabbed headlines, as some interpreted it as a direct shot at Ryan. But the two are close friends, so one can bet the retiring Gonzalez wasn't trying to insult the guy who threw him the ball for the past five seasons.

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"Matt's an excellent quarterback. But he's not elite. He's this close," Gonzalez said as he placed his thumb near his index finger while talking to Wickersham. "He'll get there, but he has some learning to do."

Maybe Gonzalez's words wouldn't have created such a stir had he phrased it in a different manner. A better way to put it might have been to say that Ryan hasn't quite reached the status of players such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, in part because he has yet to win a Super Bowl.

During the regular season, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan essentially said the same thing about Ryan, and it was viewed as a compliment.

"I don't know if he's quite there yet with Brady and Peyton Manning, but he's certainly close," the Jets coach said of Ryan back in October.

So will Ryan be offended by Gonzalez's words? It's highly unlikely, considering how well-respected Ryan is around the Falcons' locker room for keeping calm no matter the situation. This is the same guy who refused to complain publicly about his offensive line despite being the most battered quarterback in the league throughout the 2013 season. One source indicated a few weeks ago that Ryan was a lot more banged up at season's end than he let on, although Ryan said publicly his body felt fine despite the beating. Ryan was sacked 44 times.

Maybe Ryan and Gonzalez will have a discussion today, if they haven't already. But Gonzalez obviously feels Ryan is on the cusp of greatness, as a $100 million quarterback should be.

Now it's up to the Falcons to help Ryan's cause with an improved offensive line to keep him upright and a few more weapons in the passing game, such as a replacement for Gonzalez at tight end and maybe another change-of-pace running back. The return of game-breaking receiver Julio Jones from foot surgery should be a tremendous help to Ryan as the Falcons try to return to Super Bowl contention following a dismal 4-12 season.
One oddsmaker has the Atlanta Falcons at 25-1 to win next year's Super Bowl. It's a sure bet those odds depend on Matt Ryan calling the shots at quarterback for the duration of the season.

But what if the worse-case scenario evolves and Ryan is unable to play the entire way? Then what happens to the Falcons' chances?

McCown
It's something to consider when you take into account Ryan was the most-pressured quarterback in the league this past season. Although he refused to complain about it publicly, Ryan was a lot more beat up at season's end than he let on to be.

The Falcons would help Ryan's cause by securing better protection up front either via free agency or through the draft. They might add a little insurance at quarterback, too.

Dominique Davis is Ryan's backup, and Davis probably deserved more reps at the end of 2013 as Ryan continued to get pummeled. Instead, Davis patiently watched from the sideline and continued to work hard at practice daily.

Although Davis seems very capable of running the offense, the Falcons no doubt are looking around for veteran help just in case. Last season, when Davis suffered a knee injury, they brought in Mike Kafka and Trent Edwards, although neither was signed.

Remember, Davis injured his knee against Tampa Bay after Ryan was pulled during a blowout loss. The Falcons didn't have a third option because rookie seventh-round pick Sean Renfree (shoulder) was on injured reserve.

The Falcons shouldn't give up on Davis by any means. Still, the Falcons need to improve their depth up and down the roster.

One veteran quarterback's name came up during the Senior Bowl, but he wasn't mentioned by the Falcons. Apparently, this player still has admirers within the Falcons organization.

Luke McCown, 6-4, 217, QB, New Orleans Saints
Age: 32
Draft history: 4th round of 2004 (by Cleveland) out of Louisiana Tech
Career games/starts: 38/9
The word: McCown was with the Falcons during the 2012 season, replacing backup Chris Redmond during Dirk Koetter's first season as offensive coordinator. He also played under Koetter in Jacksonville, so there's an obvious familiarity with the system. McCown's stop in Atlanta was sandwiched between two stints with the Saints. He played just 16 snaps in New Orleans this past season.

If the Saints don't re-sign McCown, it would seem only natural for the Falcons to investigate the possibility of adding him to the roster. Not to mention the McCown name is hot in the NFL right now based on the success Josh McCown, Luke's brother, had with the Chicago Bears in place of the injured Jay Cutler this past season.

Wednesday: In a rush to come home?

NFLN survey/Super Bowl QB: Falcons

January, 29, 2014
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Two-minute warning. The Super Bowl is on the line. Whom do the Atlanta Falcons want as their quarterback?

Matt Ryan, of course.

The problem is, our NFL Nation survey wouldn’t allow players to vote for their teammates. So they had to go with next best answer.

For the majority, it was Tom Brady, who received 40 percent of the vote in the NFL Nation poll for which quarterback should be in control with the Super Bowl on the line.

One Falcon called Brady a ``beast’’ in describing what he’s able to do under pressure. Brady leads all players with seven game-winning playoff drives, ahead of John Elway (six) and Joe Montana (five).

As for Ryan, he’ll get his chance someday. He has 24 career game-winning drives, including six during 2012 -- the same year the Falcons came within one game of the Super Bowl.

Maybe next year will be Ryan’s time.

The next big thing: Falcons

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The Atlanta Falcons have plenty to accomplish over the next few months as they try to rebound from this past season's 4-12 implosion.

The first step in the retooling process was adding toughness with new line coaches Mike Tice and Bryan Cox. Then came the addition of new assistant general manager Scott Pioli to help bring expertise and a new perspective to talent evaluation.

Next, the Falcons have to see how they can improve the team via free agency come March 11. Cox said he already started breaking down the potential free-agent defensive linemen, so it will be interesting to see if the Falcons can find a pass-rusher at a bargain price. On the offensive line, the Falcons seem likely to target a free-agent guard while addressing tackle in the draft.

Safety, linebacker and tight end also are areas the Falcons need to improve either through free agency or the draft. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add another quarterback to the mix as added insurance, although Dominique Davis has plenty of tools behind starter Matt Ryan.

It's too early to say which players the Falcons might target, although there is plenty of speculation ongoing. Pioli, currently an analyst for NBC Sports Network and SiriusXM Radio, won't even technically start his new position until Feb. 3. Certainly general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- who still has the final say -- will value Pioli's input throughout the process.
It was rather obvious how much Matt Ryan was banged around during the 2013 season.

The physical beating the $100 million Atlanta Falcons quarterback absorbed didn't go unnoticed by Arthur Blank. The team owner explained the situation from his perspective.

"It wasn’t easy," Blank said of watching Ryan get pummeled. "I think it wasn't easy for his teammates, I know that. I saw the stress that it put on them. They were trying to protect him. They weren't always able to do it consistently. That's not to say they didn’t do it at all. They just weren’t able to do it at the level that they would like to do it."

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFinding players to help keep QB Matt Ryan out of harm's way is an offseason priority for Atlanta.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan led the league with 204 dropbacks while pressured -- sacked, forced to scramble, hit while throwing, or put under duress -- with the next closest quarterback being Seattle's Russell Wilson with 184. The league average was 122.

Ryan also led the league with 702 dropbacks, so he obviously had more opportunities to get hit. Blank talked Monday about the team's goal to return to a more physical, power style of football featuring the running game, and that is no doubt a product of wanting to establish more offensive balance so Ryan doesn't get abused.

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times, and tied Wilson as the third-most sacked quarterback in the league behind Miami's Ryan Tannehill (58) and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (48).

"I think Matt is a tough kid from Philadelphia," Blank said. "He's a great face of our franchise. He's a great franchise quarterback; a tremendous talent. But he's mentally tough and physically tough. So, I was impressed with how he used those two attributes really throughout the year to get himself up, emotionally and physically, to continue to play at the levels that he did play at this year."

Sure, Ryan might have avoided a major injury, but that didn't make it any easier for the team to watch.

"It was hard for me," Blank said. "It certainly was hard, I'm sure, for his wife and family as well. Very hard for his teammates, I'm sure. … When players see other players get hurt or stressed or put under extreme punishment, if you will, then they feel some responsibility. They feel badly about it. I can tell by body language and words, comments after the game, where his teammates felt they let him down; or, for that matter, when he let them down.

"It's not just one way. Matt had a fair number of turnovers this year. He would be the first to say in some games, he probably pressed more than he probably would have liked feeling the weight of this team on his own back which, in a sense, is to his credit. But in a sense, it's not a good thing, because you end up making some decisions that are not always the best decisions. So it was a difficult year, I think, for all of us, including Matt, and certainly the folks that tried to protect him."

It will be interesting to see how the Falcons address those protection issues. Left guard Justin Blalock was the only consistent performer on the offensive line, and even he had noticeable troubles, at times. Blank said the Falcons are likely to address offensive or defensive line issues with their first-round pick --- currently No. 6 overall -- and getting a tough offensive tackle to protect Ryan’s blind side would appear to be the priority.

Although Blank said the team will spend to upgrade the roster, he also balked at the idea of making a splash by adding a high-priced free agent. However, the Falcons might have to spend if they want to keep Ryan healthy. Relying on a rookie offensive lineman just might not cut it.
It was clearly evident how beat up Matt Ryan was all season, although the Atlanta Falcons quarterback refused to call out his offensive line for lack of protection.

But as the 2013 season wore on and the Falcons fell deeper down the standings, it was fair to wonder if preserving the health of their $100-million investment crossed the minds of the Falcons’ decision-makers. Yet head coach Mike Smith insisted such a move wasn’t an option regardless of record.

During this week’s season-ending news conference, general manager Thomas Dimitroff was asked if he was concerned about Ryan’s health.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsMatt Ryan took a pounding in 2013, getting sacked 44 times and taking numerous other hits.
"Matt’s obviously one of the toughest guys, if not the toughest guys on our football team, with what he has to deal with both mentally and physically [last] year unfortunately,’’ Dimitroff explained. "You’re always concerned about the health of your marquee-type players. And yet, I really wasn’t in a spot where I thought about that as much. I thought about it, but I really felt that we were doing the right thing. And Matt has an uncanny ability to escape and get out of the way in his own way within the pocket.’’

Maybe Ryan did sidestep pressure on occasion, but he was manhandled for most of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan led the league with 204 dropbacks while pressured -- sacked, forced to scramble, hit while throwing, or put under duress – with the next closest quarterback being Seattle’s Russell Wilson with 184. The league average was 122.

Ryan also led the league with 702 dropbacks, so he obviously had more opportunities to get hit. He was sacked a career-high 44 times.

The season finale against Carolina, when Ryan got sacked nine times and hit 14 times total, provided yet another example of why the Falcons should have considered pulling Ryan at season’s end.

"Anytime you’re thinking about your quarterback hurt and getting hit, it crosses your mind,’’ Dimitroff said. "But it wasn’t to a point to me ever suggesting to [Coach Smith], from a general manager’s standpoint, that I think we need to keep him off the field. Matt’s a wildly competitive guy and, again, very, very tough. That would have been sacrilegious to suggest to him that he shouldn’t be on the field because of that.’’

The Falcons obviously need to upgrade the offensive line via free agency or through the draft, as they currently hold the No. 6 overall pick. The Chicago Bears provided an example of the importance of revamping the offensive line when they went out a signed former Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod to a five-year, $40 million contract then drafted guard Kyle Long in the first round.

Of course, the Falcons also could help Ryan's cause by establishing more of a running game next season, so he doesn't have to drop back so many times.

Wide receiver Roddy White was the only Falcon really willing to come out and say his quarterback desperately needs more help.

"Next year, that's got to be something that we improve: We've got to keep our quarterback clean because he's not going to make it," White told ESPN.com. "You keep taking hits and hits and you're not going to make it. We're going to have to find ways to get him protected, keep him upright so he can do what he do and that's make throws and win football games."

White: QB Ryan needs better protection

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ATLANTA -- Once again, a battered and bruised Matt Ryan refused to point fingers even despite absorbing a career-high nine sacks Sunday.

One of his teammates, however, was willing to speak up on his behalf. And Roddy White didn't hold back his words.

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan managed to survive the season without a serious injury despite getting sacked a career-high 44 times.
"Next year, that's got to be something that we improve: We've got to keep our quarterback clean because he's not going to make it," White said. "You keep taking hits and hits and you're not going to make it. We're going to have to find ways to get him protected, keep him upright so he can do what he do and that's make throws and win football games."

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times this season. In Sunday's 21-20 loss the Carolina Panthers, he was hit 14 times to go with those nine sacks. Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy set a franchise record with four sacks. Ryan finishes the season as the league's third most sacked quarterback, behind the Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill (58) and the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco.

Several times, Ryan seemed to get up slowly after being thrown to the ground. But he brushed himself off and kept going.

"You know what? I feel good," Ryan maintained concerning his health. "Knock on wood, at the end of the season, I'm healthy.
"We all have to improve, there's no doubt about it. I have to play better. We have to play better up front. We have to play better on the outside.

Collectively, we didn't play good enough to win. Certainly, we'll look hard at it -- what the reasons were for that -- when we get back to work and start to evaluate this season. But across the board, I think we need to be better."

Ryan easily could have suffered a serious left knee injury with 11 minutes, 38 second remaining in the third quarter. Center Joe Hawley gave up pressure to Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who dove in at Ryan's knee. Ryan got up screaming in disgust, and the officials flagged Edwards for roughing the passer.

"That's bang-bang," Ryan said. "It's one of those things. It happens. You hate for it to happen to anybody. You hate for it to happen to yourself. But, it's part of the game. It got flagged, and we kept going."

If anything, Sunday emphasized the need for the Falcons to bolster the offensive line and add a true blocking tight end to the mix. The Falcons and general manager Thomas Dimitroff will have a high draft pick, and there are some solid tackles in Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Michigan's Taylor Lewan, and Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, to name a few. Plus free agency could be an option. The Chicago Bears bolstered their offensive line last offseason by adding tackle Jermon Bushrod from New Orleans.

However the Falcons proceed, Ryan has full confidence in the organization.

"I think it starts from the top, and we've got an owner in Mr. [Arthur] Blank that is committed to winning," Ryan said. "He is willing to do whatever it takes to win. As a player, when you play for that kind of organization, you cannot ask for any more. And I believe we've got the best owner in football."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff got an early Christmas gift Monday night: improved play on the offensive line.

No, it was not a strong enough performance to wipe out every bad memory from this season. But it was an encouraging sign from a unit that was expected to be dominated by a San Francisco 49ers front seven touted as arguably the best in the NFL.

Falcons coach Mike Smith hasn’t singled out the play of an offensive lineman too often this season. Tuesday afternoon, he singled out three.

Although quarterback Matt Ryan did a masterful job improvising at times, his pocket was clean for the most part, which helped him complete a career-high 37 passes. He was sacked just once and was able to go deep more than he had all season.

"The interior of the pocket was a little more stout," Smith said. "I thought that we did a very good job with scheming, with chipping, helping and having backs chip out, tight ends chip out before they went into their routes.

"The two tackles [Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder], they had tough draws. I thought they handled it well. I thought Matt [had a] very good pocket as well. And I really feel, after watching the tape on the ride back and watching it this morning, that Joe Hawley did a nice job cleaning the pocket up."

Hawley has been solid at center since taking the starting job away from Peter Konz, so his performance wasn’t that shocking. But Holmes held his own at left tackle against pass-rush demon Aldon Smith, while right tackle Schraeder did the same against Ahmad Brooks. Schrader fared well against Smith, too.

Holmes had a couple of false starts in the first half, but he settled down in the second half and competed with Smith. Bad technique seemed to cause Schraeder to fall on his back during one play, but he quickly shook it off.

"I thought Ryan Schraeder continued to show improvement, as an undrafted rookie getting his second start on 'Monday Night Football,'" Smith said. "I thought he did a nice job. He battled. He battled against a very good front seven."

The Falcons need to find five players capable of battling each and every week. Hawley looks like a keeper at center, while left guard Justin Blalock has been the only offensive lineman to keep his starting job throughout the season. Schraeder continues to show promise as the right tackle of the future, while the Falcons hope to get left tackle Sam Baker back healthy next season after knee surgery.

The coaches still believe Holmes has a bright future despite his obvious struggles. And the fact that Harland Gunn played 45 snaps at left guard against the 49ers, compared with 27 for Konz, is telling in terms of Konz’s status after losing his job at center.

If the line manages to string together back-to-back strong performances, the coaches truly would have something to build upon. And the Falcons finish the season against another one of league’s top defensive fronts in the Carolina Panthers.

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