FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The last thing the Atlanta Falcons want to see over their final four games of 2018 is Matt Ryan sprawled across the ground again and again.
That vision has become too common this season for the 4-8 Falcons, with Ryan being sacked 36 times in 12 games. Ryan is on pace to be sacked a career-high 48 times, which would top the 44 sacks he absorbed in 2013.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn obviously is concerned about the number of hits Ryan has taken this season.
“Well, No. 1, I’m concerned about it because if we’re not protecting him in the way that we can, then that gets hard,” Quinn said Monday. “And there’s some games that the score’s out of whack and it turns into a dropback game where there’s going to be more chances for a defense to go after him.
“At the end of it, yeah, I’m concerned. But I’m as concerned about us playing as well as we can. And if we do do that, and if we play better on some of the third downs and allow some of our run game to get going again, I would anticipate those numbers going back the other way in terms of hits on Matt.”
Ryan is being hit an average of 7.7 times per game and has been hit more than 10 times in three games: Philadelphia (14), Pittsburgh (13) and at New Orleans (13), all losses.
With the Falcons signing Ryan to a five-year, $150 million extension ($100 million guaranteed) before the ’18 season, they certainly want to protect their investment. Ryan, 33, hasn’t missed a game since 2009, when he was sidelined a couple games with turf toe.
Here are a few things the Falcons need to do to keep their franchise QB healthy moving forward.
Protect better: Of course, the offensive line has to do its part to keep Ryan upright. Losing starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco to season-ending injuries didn’t help, but they weren’t the answer, either. The Falcons shook up the lineup a little when Ben Garland was replaced by Zane Beadles this past week.
Probably the only other options are to play swing tackle Ty Sambrailo at left guard for the struggling Wes Schweitzer, or at one of the tackle spots if Ryan Schraeder or Jake Matthews continue to falter. But Sambrailo’s not a great option, either. The Falcons also could give undrafted rookie Matt Gono, who has been inactive all season, an opportunity to see what he offers. “Obviously your No. 1 job as an offensive lineman is to keep the quarterback on his feet,” Matthews said. “Yeah, we need to do a better job of that, and executing better.”
Have more success in the run game: Though pass blocking might be the line’s top priority, the Falcons have gotten pushed around too much in the running game, which has had little success as of late. During their current four-game losing streak, the running back duo of Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith has combined to average 2.94 yards per carry. Neither Coleman nor Smith is as elusive as Devonta Freeman, so they need the linemen to create holes. And having more success in the run game means fewer dropbacks for Ryan, and fewer opportunities for Ryan to be dropped on his back.
Get a lead: Like Quinn said, it’s hard to run the ball when you’re playing from behind and need to throw the ball. If the Falcons can find a way to score and grab some early leads in their upcoming games, starting with a visit to Green Bay next, then maybe defenses won’t get a chance to pin their ears back and rush Ryan knowing he’s going to throw.
Play Schaub: The Falcons haven’t been officially eliminated from playoff contention just yet, but the chances are very slim. If the losing streak continues this week or when the Falcons officially get eliminated, Quinn needs to consider playing backup Matt Schaub. The competitor in Ryan will want to play. But if there’s nothing truly to play for, playing Schaub is a sure way to keep Ryan healthy.