The 2017 Atlanta Falcons offense was never going to live up to the bar set by the 2016 team. Last year was an outlier on so many fronts. Small things like injury luck (the offensive line missed fewer than 100 snaps last season, including playoffs, due to injury) and turnovers (QB Matt Ryan had 10 potential interceptions dropped) were bound to swing the other way. And for the first nine weeks of the season, that was the case. Stud offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder missed extended time with an injury and Ryan had only one dropped interception compared to seven actual picks.

The last three weeks though, the Falcons offense has been indistinguishable from the 2017 version. They’re averaging more than 30 points and nearly 400 yards per game.

Is the recent trend a fluke? Or did they simply play three straight second-rate defenses? Digging deeper, the numbers suggest this could be more trend than outlier.

The deep ball

Last season, Ryan had the single most effective deep-passing season we’ve ever charted. A confluence of factors played into that, but by far the biggest was simply the opportunities. The 2016 Falcons offense schemed open receivers down the field better than any offense in modern football. Thirteen of Ryan’s 15 targets 31-40 yards down the field last season had more than two yards of separation. Those are windows every quarterback in the NFL could hit.

While it’s plausible to sustain a high-level offense without much of a deep passing attack (last year’s Cowboys were a good example of that), the truly elite offenses almost all have one thing in common: explosive plays down the field. The fear that the deep ball brings to defensive coordinators makes passing at all other levels easier. Tom Brady in 2007, Aaron Rodgers in 2011 and Matt Ryan in 2016 all threw for over 1,100 yards and had 10-plus touchdowns on deep passes (20-plus yards downfield). Ryan’s 136.1 passer rating on those throws is the highest we’ve ever charted. Through nine weeks of this season though, Ryan sat at a measly 65.6 passer rating on deep balls. He had thrown as many picks (two) as touchdowns. Those bay windows had turned to portholes.

The past three weeks, though, the offense has opened back up. Ryan has 13 deep targets over that span, with seven being completed for 167 yards and two touchdowns. The main target: Julio Jones. He accounted for 11 of those 13 targets and racked up 172 yards on them. That’s 38 more yards than he had in the first nine weeks of the season. It’s as if the Falcons finally realized that the league’s most feared receiver could be utilized in such a capacity. Don’t expect it to stop anytime soon.

Play-calling

The relationship between a quarterback and the play-caller is a sacred one. It’s also one that doesn’t simply blossom overnight. Ryan’s first season under Kyle Shanahan was a bumbling mess at times. He threw multiple picks in five of the first 12 weeks of the season and looked nothing like the MVP quarterback he would become. Shanahan had to find out the plays on concepts Ryan was most comfortable with and vice versa.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the Falcons’ use of play action. Ryan has consistently been one of the league’s best utilizing a run fake, but in 2016 the Falcons took it to another level. Ryan utilized it more than any quarterback in the league (27.6 percent of dropbacks) and had a passer rating of 118.2. Through nine weeks of the season, the usage rate had dropped to only 22.3 percent, though his passer rating on such plays was still a solid 99.9. Over the last three weeks, Steve Sarkisian has ramped it up to a usage rate of 27.7 percent of dropbacks and Ryan’s passer rating skyrocketed to 126.8. It’s safe to say that with the success Sarkisian and Ryan have seen, the play action pass will continue to play a larger role in the Falcons offense. Over that span, no quarterback in the NFL has graded higher than Ryan, and he’s actually matched his grade from a season ago through 12 weeks.

The fact that Ryan hasn’t taking a step back in terms of performance is the scariest thing for Falcons opponents. With him playing at an elite level, and a bevy of weapons at his disposal, the Falcons offense is officially back.

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