Matt Ryan needs to help Falcons regain offensive swagger
Matt Ryan is 1 for 20 when targeting Julio Jones in the end zone the past two seasons, including the playoffs. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports
PHILADELPHIA -- The Atlanta Falcons were confident their offense would come to life once the regular season started and Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman returned to the lineup after sitting out the preseason.
Thursday's season opener against the Eagles was about survival as both teams struggled offensively and turned the ball over. It was far from the ideal way for Atlanta to start Year 2 under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
The 18-12 loss magnified the same red zone issues that plagued the Falcons last season when they ranked 23rd in the league in red zone offense. The Falcons finished 1-for-5 in the red zone, and Matt Ryan threw a red zone interception. On the Falcons' first drive, they didn't even have Jones on the field during one red zone opportunity that he set up with a 33-yard pass play. The Falcons had first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, then three plays from the 1-yard line but couldn't punch it in.
"Nobody was in. We were in goal line," Jones said of the heavy package and personnel on the field for that scoring opportunity. "I'm comfortable with every call that's made. My job is to go out there and execute and do my best when it's my time."
Like last year's divisional playoff game against the Eagles, the Falcons had a chance to win it in the end. And just like what happened in that postseason game, the Falcons failed to score with four opportunities -- make that five, following an Eagles defensive penalty -- in a goal-line situation from the 5-yard line. Sarkisian went with a spread look on each play, but Ryan was under duress and couldn't find his safety net in Jones, or anyone else, for the game-winning score. Ryan targeted Jones on the last play, just like in the playoff game.
Ryan, facing higher expectations after signing a five-year, $150 million contract in the offseason, didn't get into the rhythm he expected after the offense sputtered some in the preseason. Sure, Ryan had some success throwing to Jones, who caught 10 passes for 169 yards on 19 targets. But Jones was the only receiver who did anything, really.
And Tevin Coleman had the Falcons' lone touchdown on a 9-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Yes, the high-powered Falcons didn't get into the end zone until the 9:53 mark of the fourth quarter. They were 4 for 15 on third down.
Ryan, who admitted not playing well enough and noticeably missed some throws, finished the game completing 21 of 43 passes for 251 yards with no touchdowns, the interception, and a passer rating of 57.4. On the interception in the red zone, Ryan said he "threw it with too much touch." Jones said he lost the ball in the lights.
Ryan was 0 for 2 when targeting Jones in the end zone. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan is 1 for 20 when targeting Jones in the end zone the past two seasons, including the playoffs.
The Falcons, a team that averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game two seasons ago, have way too many offensive weapons to struggle. If they don't get it corrected quickly, they can forget about winning the NFC South, let alone competing for a Super Bowl bid at home inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"I really believe we're going to make those plays as we move forward," an optimistic Ryan said. "It just comes down to making a play here or there. And I think when we get those changes again, we're going to come up with those plays. But we're going to continue to work at it and practice it. I think we are closer. We're disappointed that we didn't make those plays tonight. But I'm confident that we're going to make them moving forward."
Part of the improvement will have to be in protecting Ryan, who was sacked four times and was pressured much of the night. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder said the line gave up too many hits.