By Greg Ingram
For the Atlanta Falcons, it all starts with Matty Ice.
Thirty-five year-old quarterback Matt Ryan starts his thirteenth season September 13th against the Seattle Seahawks. This season hinges on two things: finding some kind of running game to take the pressure off Ryan, and keeping Matty Ice on his feet so he can complete his usual 65-70 percent of his passes.
In these two categories, the Falcons must improve over 2019 when they ranked 27th in sacks allowed (50) and 30th in rushing yards (1361), with only 10 rushing TD’s.
The addition of running back Todd Gurley makes the Falcons fans hope they can get back to the magic of 2016. That year Ryan won the league MVP with the help of dynamic running back duo Devonta Freeman and Derrick Coleman. The pair kept defenses off balance, and the Falcons ranked 5th in rushing yards to go along with 20 rushing TD’s, during a run to the Super Bowl.
If Ryan aims to match his career best in completion percentage (69.9) and fewest interceptions (7), the Falcons must mix in effective rushes so defenses are kept guessing as to what Matty Ice will call at the line. The former Boston College star knows how to out-think an opponent if he has more options than dropping back into the pocket most snaps, and hoping for time to find star receivers Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley.
“We’re at our best when we’re balanced. You’ve got the threat of the outside zone as well as the play-action pass game and the keepers, and that’s when we’re at the most difficult to defend. Last year we were in too many games where we were playing from behind, and it’s difficult to stay balanced and get that outside zone going when you’re trying to pass to get back into the game. So it’s going to be important for us to start fast in games, to make sure we’re playing from ahead.”-Matt Ryan
“I’m excited about new additions in (tight end) Hayden Hurst and (running back) Todd Gurley, two veteran guys who are explosive and can add to what we’re doing,” Ryan said. “I think Todd (Gurley) coming in still has lot in his tank. So I feel like we have a lot of good pieces, and now it’s about us going out there and showcasing what we can do.”
In missing the playoffs the last two seasons, the Falcons could blame a lot of it on injuries. However, falling behind early in games and not having a consistent running game were too much to over- come. If Gurley can keep his gimpy knee healthy and return close to his 1,000-yard days with the Rams, the Falcons’ return to the playoffs will become a bigger possibility.
On defense, the Falcons need to develop a more consistent pass rush to help out the secondary. Atlanta ranked 31st in sacks last year, getting only 28. They are counting on newcomer Dante Fowler, Jr. – who had 11 sacks with the Rams in 2019 – and a much lighter and faster Takk McKinley to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“I had too many almost sacks (last year), so finishing is huge for me,” McKinley said. “If I finish, I don’t think anybody would be talking about the Falcons’ declining Takk’s fifth-year option. Finishing, that’s what the game is all about.”
If the Falcons are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017, they will have to earn it. Two factors working against them are the heady quarterback talent in their division and the overall schedule. That includes home and away games against a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Drew Brees of New Orleans and now Tom Brady of Tampa Bay. In addition to their foes in the NFC South, they face the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, as well as the Seattle Seahawks, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.
So for Ryan and his head coach Dan Quinn, the road will be tough unless the running game reappears. If it does and Ryan stays upright, this team could win 9 or 10 games and sneak into the playoffs. Otherwise, it’s more like an 8-8 season, and another missed playoffs.