Things haven't exactly gone as planned for the Atlanta Falcons this season. Sure, it wouldn't have been crazy to predict before September that the Falcons would find themselves at 6-6 with four games left to go in the season, but after a 5-0 start, average is an awful disappointing place to land.
Dan Quinn's hopes of making the playoffs in his debut season as head coach lay in tatters. Atlanta has just a 1.6 percent chance of making the postseason, according to ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). The Falcons will surely need to sweep their remaining four games and get to 10-6 to even have a shot at beating out the likes of Seattle and Minnesota for a playoff nod. Their schedule isn't too tough; they only have to play the league's last undefeated team, the 12-0 Carolina Panthers, twice in three weeks. Their home-and-home set starts on Sunday in Charlotte.
As Atlanta's season has gone pear-shaped, star quarterback Matt Ryan has come under criticism. He has thrown seven picks during this current five-game losing streak, including a pair of critical interceptions in the shadow of the end zone during a bitter loss to the Indianapolis Colts. It's hardly uncommon for a passer to come under fire when his team collapses, but Ryan had managed to duck most of the criticism surrounding the Falcons during their frustrating 2013 and 2014 campaigns.
Now, both Ryan and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are taking the blame for Atlanta's dizzying spiral down the drain. With Ryan occupying the fifth-largest cap charge in the league (and the seventh-highest figure next year), some Falcons fans are publicly grumbling that they might be better off without their franchise quarterback. With four games left in the 2015 campaign, now is a good time to look at what has gone wrong for Ryan during this ugly stretch and see whether it's something that will continue to bother the former Boston College star, both over the remainder of the season and in the years to come.
First, let's start with the simple fact that Ryan's stretches of excellent and subpar play this year don't necessarily coincide with Atlanta's wins and losses. He had two multiple-interception games during the five-game winning streak that started the Falcons' season, then played well during the nasty loss to the New Orleans Saints that ended that stretch in Week 6. Not only is it more accurate in terms of Ryan's performance to split his 12 games into two six-game stretches, but it also allows for fairer comparisons.
It's easy to see where Ryan has declined during the frustrating second half of his season:
Ryan is throwing interceptions twice as often as he did during the first half of the campaign. The good news is that this matches up with what's on tape, and it's not necessarily a problem with Ryan. The bad news is that it's a problem that's going to be hard to fix, especially before the offseason: very simply, nobody on the Falcons is getting open.
A deeper look into the numbers confirms that disappointing truth. Ryan isn't hitting plays downfield. After posting the league's 11th-best QBR on throws traveling 16 yards or more in the air -- what the league defines as "deep" passes -- during the first part of the season, Ryan's QBR on those same throws has fallen to 30th over the past six games. He hasn't thrown a deep touchdown pass since Week 3, and to their credit, the Falcons recognized this week that they need to create more big plays downfield.
The other problem you would look for when receivers are struggling to get open is an inability to do much after the catch, and that has also been a major issue for Atlanta recently. Ryan's receivers were 22nd in average yards after the catch during the 5-1 start. Since Week 7, though, Julio Jones and company are averaging just 3.8 yards after the catch per Ryan pass. That's dead last among the 36 qualifying quarterbacks over these past seven weeks. The two problems are at least partially related -- it's easier to get 30 yards after the catch when you burn a cornerback down the sidelines on a go route than it is on a shallow cross -- but they're both serious concerns.
Six of Ryan's nine interceptions during this disappointing stretch came on passes over the middle. There's Captain Munnerlyn in trail coverage. Bucs linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David dropping into zones for picks in separate games. Even the most frustrating pick of all, D'Qwell Jackson's 5-yard pick-six, was going into a virtually nonexistent window.
Over the past six games, Ryan has thrown picks on 4.6 percent of his passes over the middle of the field. That's not the worst rate in football -- Peyton Manning has somehow thrown interceptions on 10.6 percent of his passes between the numbers -- but it's the fourth-worst rate in the league. That's a serious problem because Ryan lives over the middle. He has thrown 300 passes between the numbers this year; the only quarterback who has thrown more is Philip Rivers, at 301. Ryan was second in the league in the same category in 2013 and 2014. If teams choke up the middle of the field and Matty Ice's receivers can't get open, that's a major problem.
At the same time, though, this is a six-game, 250-pass sample. A lot of goofy things can happen over six games that aren't a reliable indicator of what will happen in the future. Look back at Ryan's career and you'll see stretches in which he kept turning the ball over, but they were followed by a run in which he was relatively careful with the football. During Atlanta's last great season, 2012, Ryan threw five picks in one game against Arizona as part of a stretch in which he threw 10 picks in five games. He followed that up by throwing just two interceptions over his final six starts that year. After his worst career six-game stretch, which came in 2009 when he threw 11 picks over six games, Ryan finished with two picks over his last five outings. He has bad stretches and then pulls out of the skid.
Even on those passes over the middle, Ryan has had stretches in which he plays without the kind of issues that are plaguing him now. During the first half of the season, when he was throwing passes between the numbers just as frequently as he is now, Ryan threw picks on 2.0 percent of his passes in that area of the field. Between 2013 and 2014, with Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator, Ryan threw picks on 2.2 percent of those throws.
The issue is also not directly related to Shanahan; his assorted Cleveland Browns quarterbacks threw picks on 3.0 percent of their passes over the middle last year, which was 18th in the league. Likewise, Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins were a combined 18th in interception rate on throws between the numbers during 2012 and 2013, when Shanahan was offensive coordinator in Washington. It's not as if there's some aspect of Shanahan's offense that forces Ryan to squeeze the ball into impossible windows at the hashes -- if there were, we'd see evidence of it in his past.
Where Shanahan might try to help Ryan is by creating some easier throws at the line of scrimmage. Ryan had plenty of success on those plays earlier in the year. In September, I wrote about how the Falcons were leaving Ryan with the option to check out of runs and throw to Jones when teams left him uncovered at the line of scrimmage. Teams have adapted to that, as you might expect, by leaving Jones uncovered at the line less frequently. Jones had 14 catches for 109 yards on throws Ryan made within 1.5 seconds of receiving the snap during the first six games, the second-highest total in football. Over the past six games, that number is down to seven catches.
Atlanta's screen game has also mostly disappeared. The Falcons got in trouble with some of their screens earlier in the season, picking up three offensive pass interference penalties in their first four games. They mostly seem to have abandoned the practice, having picked up just one OPI call since. Over these past six games, they've thrown just 11 screen passes for a total of 56 yards. Ryan's 18.0 QBR on those screens is the worst figure in the league. With more quick throws to the outside, the Falcons could (at least theoretically) give linebackers a reason to vacate the middle of the field.
And then, of course, there's the red zone. Ryan has thrown three picks in the red zone during this six-game stretch, which is tied for the league lead over that span with Tom Brady, of all people. Ryan's 23.5 QBR in the red zone is the fifth-worst in the league since Week 7. Atlanta's offense on the whole has produced 4.1 points per red zone trip during this ugly streak, the fourth-worst in the league. That's a huge drop-off from the first six games of the year, when they were producing 5.5 points per trip, the fifth-best tally in football.
Some of that is certainly on Ryan and the struggles of the passing attack, but Atlanta's suddenly struggling ground game deserves some of the blame, too. Devonta Freeman was a revelation in fantasy football after taking over for an injured Tevin Coleman, but with Freeman banged up, that's no longer the case. During the first six weeks of the season, the combination of Coleman and Freeman carried the ball 25 times in the red zone, gaining 85 yards and scoring a whopping eight touchdowns.
Over the ensuing six games, the duo picked up 26 carries. Those runs produced just 64 yards, with neither Freeman nor Coleman punching in a single rushing touchdown. Atlanta has been dismal near the goal line: The team's 10 carries from inside the 5-yard line have produced more fumbles (one) than rushing yards or touchdowns (each zero). You can blame the passing offense for not scaring opposing defenses in the red zone, but at some point, you've got to be able to punch the ball in, even if the other team knows it's coming.
It seems strange that a passing offense featuring Matt Ryan and Julio Jones wouldn't be scary in the red zone, and that still seems like Atlanta's biggest underlying issue to me. While Jones expressed frustration with his red zone role after the Falcons' Week 13 loss, Ryan could hardly be forcing Jones the football more. During this six-game skid, Jones leads the league in targets (84) and is getting thrown the ball 34 percent of the time he runs routes, the third-highest frequency in football among wideouts. In the red zone, that figure hits 33.3 percent, which is sixth. He's getting plenty of targets.
It's the other guys, though, who aren't up to the challenge. It would be too simple to link Atlanta's decline to the absence of Leonard Hankerson, but that certainly explains some of the offensive issues. Hankerson played in Atlanta's first six games before sitting out four of the next five contests with a hamstring injury. The Falcons finally gave up and placed Hankerson on injured reserve last Friday, replacing him on the roster with Devin Hester.
The remaining receivers just aren't producing at a high level. Veteran stalwart Roddy White is 34 and hasn't looked the same since toughing his way through a high ankle sprain at the beginning of the 2013 season; he's averaging just 2.7 yards after the catch on his 30 receptions this year, the fifth-lowest figure for wideouts who have caught as many passes as he has this season. Jacob Tamme, a logical red zone target, has just two catches inside the 20 all season. Fourth-round pick Justin Hardy was inactive for the first seven weeks of the year. And even Hankerson had an astronomical drop rate of 13 percent. The Falcons desperately need somebody besides Freeman to step up alongside Jones.
Barring a sudden leap forward from Hardy, that's likely an offseason project. The Falcons will need to revamp their receiving corps again this offseason with limited cap space, a move that would include the painful release of a franchise icon, given that Atlanta can save up to $4.3 million by cutting White. The personnel brain trust of Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff can clear another $3 million by waiving Hester, but those are changes that can't be made until the season ends. Sadly for the Falcons, barring a miraculous December turnaround, their season has already figuratively come to a close.