Matt Ryan: Atlanta has ‘a great chance’ to return to Super Bowl

Vaughn McClure
ESPN Staff Writer

DECATUR, Ga. –– About 20 minutes before Matt Ryan arrived at the Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta Thursday, highlights of the Atlanta Falcons’ deflating Super Bowl LI loss to the New England Patriots played on a big-screen television right inside the front entrance.

Had Ryan walked in to see such a sight, he might have laughed and shaken his head before proceeding about his business. Ryan has made a point of not dwelling on the implosion that makes the Falcons a national punchline to this day.

Instead, Ryan maintains the same confident approach heading into every season. Going into 2019, however, he seems to have more swagger than usual regarding his team’s ability to contend for a title.

“The group of guys that we have, we have a locker room of competitive, hardworking, unselfish people, and I think it’s the people in our building that give us a great chance to get back and obviously hopefully win a Super Bowl,” Ryan said.

“We’ve got a great coaching staff. We’ve got a combination of guys that are going to try and put the players that we have in the best position to be successful.”

Ryan didn’t forecast leading the league in scoring, although he knows the offense is more than capable of being explosive with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and the rest of the crew. He didn’t promise the defense would be a top-10 unit or the team would avoid the injury bug, as those are factors far beyond his control. But Ryan knows it’s comforting watching guys such as Freeman, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen making their way back from season-ending injuries.

Ryan certainly feels at ease with Dirk Koetter back as his offensive coordinator. (Koetter was the coordinator in Atlanta from 2012 to ’14 before joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015.) The quarterback sees the commitment the team has made to protecting him — Ryan was sacked 42 times in 2018, the second-highest total of his career — with the additions of offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary (both drafted in the first round) and free agents James Carpenter and Jamon Brown.

Ryan also fully understands competing for a title starts with taking care of business in the division. The Falcons finished second in the NFC South last season with a disappointing 7-9 record. The New Orleans Saints won it last year running away with a 13-3 mark. The Falcons have won the NFC South four times since it formed back in 2002, making it to one Super Bowl (2016) over that span.

“It’s always tough,” Ryan said of the division. “Drew [Brees] is always tough. New Orleans has a great offense. They play really good defense. Cam Jordan is one of the best players in the league on the defensive side of the ball.”

Carolina, awaiting Cam Newton’s full recovery from shoulder surgery, also finished with a 7-9 mark last season and made some additions this offseason, most notably six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He has terrorized interior offensive linemen over the years and could be a massive test for Lindstrom, projected to be the starting right guard.

“Gerald McCoy went from being a problem in one place to being a problem in another place,” Ryan said. “Different problem for a different team. He’s a great player that’s been added into an already great defense. He’s going to be difficult to go against, that’s for sure. He always has been.

“Absolutely he’ll be a test for [Lindstrom], he along with Kawann Short. The whole group that they have, that’s going to be a strong test for our interior guys.”

Ryan won’t discount the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished 5-11 with Koetter as the head coach last season but have a new boss in Bruce Arians.

“Tampa is tough,” Ryan said. “[Ndamukong] Suh is a veteran player who plays at a high level that’s an interior problem for offenses. That’s another tough guy that we have to go against.

“At the end of the day, it’s about us, though. We respect those guys and appreciate what they do, but our focus is on how good can we play and how good of a team can we become because we have all the pieces we need to be successful.”

The schedule won’t make things any easier for the Falcons. Six of their first nine opponents are playoff teams from a year ago, and four of their first six games are on the road.

“The schedule is what it is,” Ryan said. “They’re going to give it to you, and it’s your job to approach it and deal with it. Other than basically two games, it’s slated who you’re going to play depending on division.”

It all starts Sept. 8 with a game at Minnesota against a Vikings team that finished 8-7-1 last season and boasted a top-10 scoring defense and top-10 total defense.

“They’re going to be good,” Ryan said of the Vikings. “That’s a tough place. It’s a good defense. It’s going to be loud, which is challenging for our offense. That’s something that we’ll have to be prepared for and ready to go, especially with it being an opening game. Sometimes, you get a feel for [noise] as the year goes on, but it’s going to be critical for us to be operating at a high level when we get up there because it’s going to take our best effort to get a win.”

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