Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Matt Ryan Presents Challenge for Bucs

Enemy Lines: Falcons QB Matt Ryan is playing as well as ever but enjoying more wins this season thanks to confident leadership, a new star on offense and another great season from his most trusted weapon.

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Projected starters for the Falcons as listed on team depth chart.

Matt Ryan through the first seven games of the 2014 season:** 178 completions in 278 attempts (64.0%) for 2,078 yards, 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 91.7 passer rating.

Matt Ryan through the first seven games of the 2015 season: 172 completions in 267 attempts (64.4%) for 2,002 yards, nine touchdowns, six interceptions and an 88.9 passer rating.

Atlanta Falcons through the first seven games of the 2014 season:2-5
Atlanta Falcons through the first seven games of the 2015 season: 6-1

The Atlanta Falcons have had the great fortune of starting Matt Ryan at quarterback for all but two games since they drafted him third overall in 2008. Ryan has been not only one of the most productive passers in the league in that span, but also perhaps its most amazingly consistent one. He has been at the helm of teams that have won four games and teams that won 13, but you could switch his stat line from any two seasons and barely notice any difference.

But this year's squad has already matched last year's win total, which means the Falcons are making much better use of Ryan's contributions, which have been as good and as predictable as ever. Some of that can be attributed to new leadership, some to a newly-emerging offensive star and some to much better fortune on the injury front. Oh, and one of Ryan's best weapons has somehow found a way to get even better.

It starts with Dan Quinn, the new head coach Atlanta imported from the Seattle Seahawks who seems to be something of a kindred spirit when it comes to consistency.

"Dan's been awesome to be around," said Ryan. "He's got great energy. Every day he shows up in the building – I think he's very consistent day-in and day-out. He's really clear with his messaging. I think guys understand what he expects from us and the guys buy into it and believe in his philosophy about winning games. It's worked well so far. We've got a long way to go, but it's been a good start."

Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, October 28st at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.

Quinn knew he was inheriting a team with a rock-solid answer at the game's most important position, which isn't often the case for a team coming off 4-12 and 6-10 seasons. It didn't take long for those two to come to appreciate and respect each other.

"Every time you get to play against terrific players, you get a sense for how good they are," said Quinn of Ryan. "Sometimes you don't have a sense for the competitor and how hard they're driven and why they play. So, for me, when I got here, he was the first player that I met. That told me a lot. I walked in the building and there was a guy waiting there to come talk to me and it was Matt Ryan. That told me a lot about how important playing is to him and what he stands for as a guy. So I think that was probably the thing that quietly I was most jacked about."

The only appreciable difference between the 2014 and 2015 stat lines for Ryan above is that his touchdown passes are down by about 30%, but that's not difficult to explain given the Falcons' newfound ability to run the ball. Second-year running back Devonta Freeman is that newly-emerging star who has made Atlanta's attack more complete, and he's already scored nine times on the ground.
The Falcons have 11 rushing touchdowns total through seven games, which equals their mark from the entire season a year ago.

"Devonta has played really, really, really great," said Ryan, of the former Florida State runner who only became the team's uncontested lead back when rookie Tevin Coleman suffered an injury in Week Two. "It's a thing where we've gotten better in the run game as the season's progressed. Week-in and week-out, I feel like we're getting better. And week-in and week-out I feel like Devonta is getting better, as well. He's been so productive that you forget that it's really only five or six weeks of him starting. He's taken full advantage of the opportunity. He's a guy who's worked extremely hard from the time we drafted him, and I think is a player that has really improved and gotten better because of that work ethic. He's playing at a really high level for us right now."

With Harry Douglas now playing for Tennessee, long-time standout Roddy White playing a lesser role and Tony Gonzalez two years into retirement, Ryan has had to find new ways to complement star Julio Jones in the passing game. Leonard Hankerson has done well in an expanded role but it's Freeman who ranks second on the team with 34 catches for 310 yards and, of course, another touchdowns.

"He's been great out of the backfield," said Ryan of the young tailback. "That's one of the things that we saw more from Devonta last year than running the ball. He was great for us out of the backfield last year. He's got great hands, runs very good routes. He's one of the guys who can kind of do it all at that running back position and we're fortunate to have him."

Jones had to battle through some injuries last year (and again this year) but still put up close to 1,500 yards. Where the injuries really hurt Atlanta – last year and in 2013 as well – was along the offensive line. This year, so far, the Falcons' starting five, which includes three 2015 veteran acquisitions, has made 34 of a possible 35 starts. That has certainly helped Freeman take the Falcons' rushing attack from the bottom of the league to close to the top.

And then, of course, there's Jones, who is second only to Houston's DeAndre Hopkins in targets this season, with 89. Jones has the speed and athleticism to run any route, but there may not be a better practitioner of the quick slant than Atlanta's fifth-year wideout.

"There's a lot of things that go into it, [such as] drawing the right coverage in order to have a favorable look for a slant," said Ryan. "But [Jones'] ability to explode off the line of scrimmage and to press guys vertically, to make them back up off the line of scrimmage, and then his ability to cut and make such sharp cuts, I think helps him be a great slant runner."

Jones has had to fight through hamstring issues to play in a couple of Atlanta's games this year, but he's been there for Ryan all season. And Ryan has been there for the Falcons, as he is every year, providing the same production he always has. This year, for the first time since 2012, he has a winning team around him. And as the wins return, so does Atlanta's confidence, which leads to more happy Sundays.

"When you execute really well, that promotes confidence in situations," said Ryan. "When you're able to find ways to get it done, and you believe like you're going to be able to get it done no matter what the situation, I think early success for us has certainly helped that."

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