Ryan poised to lead revival of high-scoring offensive attack

Ryan: ‘I’m playing as well as I’ve ever played’

In 10 NFL seasons, Matt Ryan has played in 158 games, earning 95 wins.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan would love nothing more than to lift this franchise to its first Super Bowl victory.

He enters the season as the highest paid player in the NFL and in his prime.

“I certainly feel like I’m at a point in my career where I’ve got plenty of experience,” Ryan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m playing as well as I’ve ever played and I feel really good.”

The last two seasons have been marked by an historic Super Bowl collapse and another near-miss in the playoffs for Ryan and the Falcons.

As the offense sputtered last season, the Falcons were the only NFC team to return to the playoffs. But the season ended agonizingly short on the 2-yard line in Philadelphia. A pass intended for wide receiver Julio Jones slithered through his grasp while trying to make an acrobatic catch after slipping on the play.

The Eagles went on to win Super Bowl LII.

The Falcons reached the previous Super Bowl, but unraveled like a cheap leisure suit from Goodwill after building a 28-3 lead, eventually losing 34-8 to Tom Brady and the Patriots in overtime.

Ryan, who signed a six-year, $150 million contract extension in May, is back for his 11th season and ready to attempt to scale the mountain that this franchise has never mastered since being founded in 1966.

“Going into this, I feel like we’ve got a really good football team,” said Ryan, a four-time Pro Bowler and the league MVP in 2016. “A lot of really good young players. A lot of really good veteran players.”

The Falcons must replace two starters on offense, the fullback and the right guard. The major structural change occurred on the coaching staff with the addition of quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp and veteran running back coach Bernie Parmalee.

Knapp, a former offensive coordinator and 21-year NFL coaching veteran, will be positioned to help second-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian with game plans and in-game counters when teams attempt to slow down their attack.

Knapp will work from the press box during games, while Sarkisian will call plays from the sidelines.

“I’m fortunate to have Greg Knapp with us now,” Sarkisian said. “He has so much experience of him being up top and him relaying information. I just feel good about being on the field and we’ll continue that way.”

The Falcons led the league in scoring in 2016 before dropping back to 15th last season.

Ryan likes the teams’ prospects.

“We got the right attitude,” Ryan said. “The right work ethic. Practice has been competitive, tough and good. We are doing all the things that give you a chance to be successful.

“That’s the key. You have to put in all of the work. You have to take care of business in the meetings to give yourself a chance to go out there and play good football.”

The Falcons finished second in the NFC South after going 10-6 in 2017. They beat the Los Angeles Rams in the wild card round of the playoffs and were favored against the Eagles before coming up short.

Despite All-Pro wide receiver Jones missing the offseason and being held out of exhibition games, along with running back Devonta Freeman, Ryan still approved of the team’s preparation for the 2018 regular season.

“That’s all we can really worry about this time of the year, is making sure that when we are on the practice field, every time we are in a meeting, we’re getting better,” Ryan said. “I think we’ve done that.”

Jones spent part of the offseason training away from the team with Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens. The former Alabama star also spent time working out in Tuscaloosa.

“Holding speed and things like that,” said Jones when asked about what he was working on. “I’m a fast-twitch guy, but I worked on a lot of core and VMO (vastus medialis obliquus), running hills, just to work on my long speed and being able to hold speed for a long distance.”

Running hills in California was part of the workout plan.

Ryan believes the offense will click despite Jones and Freeman not playing in exhibition games.

“They both have played so much football and they both practice so much that I don’t really see them missing a beat as we get into the regular season,” Ryan said.

While Jones and Freeman are Ryan’s main weapons, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the team’s first-round pick, was added to create big plays.

There’s also running back Tevin Coleman, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and tight end Austin Hooper.

Ryan’s deployment of his weapons will be vital to the offense’s revival.

“You see what a defense is going to come out and try to take away and then trust our guys to go out there and make plays,” Ryan said. “That can be different every week.”

The receivers must play better. The Falcons led the lead with 30 dropped passes and seven of Ryan’s 12 interceptions clanged off his receiver’s hands last season.

He’s counting on a better performance across the board.

“I’ve always felt when we’ve had a lot of weapons that the ball is going to find different guys at different times,” Ryan said. “You have to be prepared and you have to be ready for it. That’s the beauty of the guys that we have. They are all so unselfish. They are also always hungry for it, too. So, when it comes their way, they make plays and good things happen.”

Newcomers in tight end Logan Paulsen and guard Brandon Fusco believe the offense is poised to soar.

“When you look at the skill players, they’ve been around for a long time and look at the (offensive) line and they’ve been around,” Paulsen said. “It’s really good to see an offense at this stage with a whole bunch of guys who’ve been in it for a long time and kind of know the intimate details of it.”

Paulsen spent his career with the Redskins, (2010-14), Bears (2016) and 49ers (2017) before signing as a free agent this offseason.

“This is by far the most talented group that I’ve ever played with,” Paulsen said. “The only limitation is the ones that we place on ourselves on offense here. I definitely think there is a lot of opportunity for us moving forward.”

Fusco spent the exhibition season getting comfortable playing right guard next to center Alex Mack and is projected as the new starter.

“It’s pretty cool,” Fusco said. “It was a lot of fun. I’ve never been around so much talent in my life. It’s really impressive.”

With the offense essentially in place and with an emerging defense, the Falcons’ window to win the Super Bowl is clearly open.

“As far as windows, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s all about this year,” Ryan said. “Not looking any farther than that. Not looking in the past. It’s about this team that we have this year. That’s where my focus is at.”