After bad day in L.A., Matt Ryan insists he’s got ‘plenty in tank’

The Falcons are not a good football team. That’s why they won’t be going to the playoffs despite an extra bid available during the NFL’s COVID-19 season. I spent much of Sunday talking myself into the idea that the Falcons aren’t half-bad. After all, they’d beaten everybody but the Saints over the past five weeks.

The Falcons went to Los Angeles on Sunday and played the Chargers without star wide receiver Julio Jones and two-fifths of their starting offensive line. But that’s not why they lost 20-17. The Falcons couldn’t win because quarterback Matt Ryan played terribly.

The defense bailed Ryan out all day but couldn’t do it one last time. The Falcons failed to stop the Chargers from turning Ryan’s third interception of the second half into a 43-yard field goal as time expired. The short-handed Falcons were undone by the guy interim coach Raheem Morris called the team’s “best player.”

If that’s still the case, then the Falcons are hitched to a rickety wagon. Ryan has eight interceptions against six touchdowns over his past five games. His passing accuracy dipped below 60% in three of them. Ryan is 35-years-old and, for salary-cap reasons, the Falcons are essentially committed to him for at least one more season.

If Ryan’s skills are fading, then the Falcons don’t look nearly as attractive to the top general manager and coaching candidates they’ll seek for open positions

“I’ve got plenty in the tank,” Ryan said. “I’ve just got to play better. Unfortunately, stuff like this happens sometimes in professional sports and you’ve just got to grind through it. You’ve got to find a way to be better.

“I’m committed to that and I certainly believe I’ll play better next week.”

The Falcons are 4-4 since franchise owner Arthur Blank fired coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris replaced him on an interim basis. Their defense has been solid for a month. The Falcons have a chance when their offense also shows up.

That didn’t happen in their two meetings against the Saints, when the Falcons managed a total of one touchdown. The offense did fire in a 34-27 victory over the Broncos and a 43-6 win against the Raiders. The Chargers aren’t good defensively and yet the Falcons failed to score at least 20 points for the fifth time in 13 games.

The Falcons played without two starters along the offensive line, right tackle Kaleb Gary (personal) and left guard James Carpenter (groin). Fox color analyst Brock Huard reported that Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter told him Ryan needed to trust the pass protection no matter who’s playing. That seemed to be a tough ask because Ryan had been a bit jumpy in the pocket for weeks and the Chargers had pass-rushing terror Joey Bosa.

It turned out that Ryan could believe in his blockers. They held up reasonably well. Ryan’s decision-making was less trustworthy. He cost the Falcons points with three egregious interceptions and a key grounding penalty.

Ryan’s third interception came after

Ryan’s first interception came on L.A.’s side of the field with the Falcons leading 17-10. The game was tied 17-17 and the Falcons were past midfield again when Ryan threw his second pick. That turnover gave the Chargers the ball with less than four minutes to play. The Falcons got it back when Blidi-Wreh Wilson intercepted rookie quarterback Justin Herbert with 47 seconds to play.

Los Angeles Chargers strong safety Rayshawn Jenkins (right) intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (center) during the second half Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (Ashley Landis/AP)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

The Falcons gave it back, once again after driving to L.A’s side of the field, when cornerback Michael Davis picked off Ryan’s pass for Calvin Ridley toward the right sideline. The Chargers turned that giveaway into Michael Badgley’s game-winning field goal.

“Too much air, not enough pace and too far inside,” Ryan said of that throw. “Not a good combination.”

It’s rarely the case that a football loss can be pinned on one player. This probably was one of those times. The Falcons would have won if Ryan weren’t so careless with the ball. He’d seemed to recover after some poor games early in the season, but Ryan has looked unsure of himself for the past month.

“My body feels great,” Ryan said. “I feel like I’m fresh and in a good spot. I just haven’t played as well as I like. That sometimes happens. I’m a big believer in process. You learn from these games when you don’t play your best and try not to make the same mistakes again.”

That philosophy didn’t work on Ryan’s first interception. He got away with trying to pass to Calvin Ridley against double coverage on the opening drive. His luck wasn’t as good when the Falcons had a chance to go up two scores on the Chargers.

The Chargers had squandered a scoring chance with poor clock management to end the first half. They’d gone three-and-out to open the second half. A Chargers holding penalty on third down gave the Falcons a first down near midfield. The Falcons had scored on their past three possessions and here was an opportunity to pour it on.

On first down at L.A.’s 43-yard line, Ryan unleashed a pass deep down the middle for Ridley in the end zone. It was too deep. Rayshawn Jenkins intercepted the pass.

Said Ryan: “Of the three interceptions on the day, that’s probably one you can live with. You want to give a guy a chance in the end zone. He’s a great player. He makes plays on the ball extremely well.”

The Chargers converted that giveaway into a 13-play TD drive that tied the score at 17. The next Falcons drive ended when their insistence on featuring faded running back Todd Gurley backfired. They’d gained two first downs with Ito Smith running for tough yards, but Gurley was on the field for a third-and-1 play at L.A.’s 38-yard line.

The Falcons tried to set up a screen play to the right. The blockers formed a wall on that side, but Gurley went to the left. Ryan made a bad situation worse when he threw the ball to no one. The 10-yard loss on the grounding penalty meant a field goal try or fourth-down play weren’t options.

The Falcons punted but their defense forced a punt to give Ryan another chance. The Falcons drove to a first down at L.A.’s 19-yard line. A penalty pushed them back before Chargers safety Jahleel Addae intercepted Ryan’s pass for Hayden Hurst.

“That was poor on me,” Ryan said. “I’ve got to get the ball out.”

The Chargers beat the Falcons a week after suffering their worst loss in franchise history. The Patriots won 45-0 while picking off Herbert twice and scoring on a punt return and a blocked field goal. The Chargers won Sunday despite coach Anthony Lynn’s game management blunder to end the first half.

L.A. had no timeouts when it ran the ball on third-and-1 at the Falcons’ 8-yard line with 22 seconds left. The Chargers didn’t get the first down and didn’t have their field-goal team ready. The half ended after the Chargers committed a penalty while hastily lining up to try a kick.

Those squandered points ending up not mattering because of Ryan’s giveaways. The Falcons wouldn’t be half-bad if their quarterback played better.