A fast start is nothing new for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The difference early in Year 2 of their partnership is that Ryan is in control of an offense that isn’t so heavily reliant on Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones.
The offensive diversity during the team’s 1-1 start could mean the surge is more sustainable unlike 2015, when the Falcons faded following their 5-1 start. The Falcons showed the potential of such a wider talent mix during their 35-28 victory at the Raiders on Sunday.
“I think just about everybody that suited up had the ball,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “When you can have different guys catch it — the (short plays), the deep plays, the plays out of the backfield — that’s what makes it really challenging (for opponents). I think that was especially impressive by the offense (Sunday), the amount of guys that got involved in the game.”
Through two weeks, Ryan leads the NFL in passer rating (121.4), yards per attempt (10) and completions of 40 yards or more (4) and is tied for second with five touchdown throws. None of the Falcons’ receivers and running backs account for more than 20 percent of the team’s 902 total yards and six players have gained at least 10 percent of those yards.
It wasn’t that way during the fast start to Shanahan’s first season with the Falcons. Ryan was playing well then and the Falcons averaged nearly four touchdowns per game over the first six games. But Freeman and Jones were responsible for an outsized portion of the production.
Over that span, Freeman accounted for 33 percent of the team’s 2,444 yards and 10 of the 23 TDs while Jones had 26 percent of the yards and five scores. Since-released wide receiver Leonard Hankerson had 12 percent of the yards gained and tight end Jacob Tamme had nine percent. No other player had more than six percent of total yards during those six games.
Eventually, such heavy doses of Jones and Freeman proved to be unsustainable and the entire offense suffered. Contrast that with the victory at Oakland on Sunday.
Jones gained 106 (20 percent) of the 528 total yards but the other 422 yards were spread among 10 players. And it wasn’t just the backs and receivers. The game-plan included extensive use of three tight-end sets and those players combined for 10 receptions and 180 yards.
“We have some different personnel groups we can throw out at people,” Tamme said. “Obviously, we have some good running backs and wide-outs. It’s fun for the tight ends to get to be a part of it and get a chance to make some plays. So that part was awesome.”
The diversity of personnel was matched by the mixture of throws by Ryan, who completed 26-of-34 attempts for 396 yards and three touchdown with one interception.
During the loss to Tampa Bay in Week 1, Ryan attempted just three passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air and completed one, according to Pro Football Focus. Ryan worked the short game again against the Raiders; PFF said he held the ball an average 2.42 seconds before releasing as 10 of his 34 attempts were on quick slants
But Ryan completed all three attempts of 20-plus yards against the Raiders for a total of 124 yards. Jones caught one of those long balls and rookie tight end Austin Hooper had two.
After Ryan’s interception wiped out one scoring chance in the red zone, the Falcons scored touchdowns on their next three drives before running out most of the clock on their final possession. And unlike last season, the Falcons did it with Ryan spreading the ball around instead of relying on Freeman and Jones to carry the load.
“I thought we did a great job offensively getting in to a rhythm,” Ryan said. “We didn’t do a whole lot in the first quarter, but once we kind of found our stride, we kept going and played really well.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.