Matt Ryan Improved All Over the Field in 2016

Ryan has put together an MVP-caliber season while leading the Falcons to Super Bowl LI. His improvement from 2015 to 2016 can easily be seen at every spot on the football field.

The Atlanta Falcons had one of the best offenses we’ve seen in recent memory -- by Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play, it’s the best offense numberFire has tracked since 2000. It's what's gotten them to Super Bowl LI.

The combination of Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan receive a majority of the credit for this, and deservedly so. This Falcons team is filled with weapons, from the dynamic running backs to a stable of receivers that allows Ryan to spread the ball around in the passing game. But at the center of this production has been the signal-caller and his offensive coordinator.

Last year, though, that was not the case.

While Ryan was ninth among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back in 2015, the season was viewed as a bit of a disappointment -- much of that was due to the sequencing of the team’s 5-0 start and 3-8 finish. Ryan wasn’t nearly as bad as some would suggest, but his game took a massive step forward this year, allowing him to post the best Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, which was his second in Shanahan's system.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the areas on the field where Ryan improved from 2015 to 2016.

2015 Performance

For this exercise, we’re going to break down the field into six boxes: short left, short middle, short right, deep left, deep middle, and deep right. These designations will mesh with the NFL’s designation of these areas, which considers a deep pass anything at least 15 yards down the field. In those areas, we’ll look at completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns, interceptions, and Passing NEP per drop back (PNEP/DB).

Let’s first take a look at how Ryan did last season.

2015 Left Middle Right
Short 132/181, 1,189 yds 96/157, 1,072 yds 131/181, 1,223 yds
7 TD/4 INT 0 TD/7 INT 10 TD/0 INT
0.25 PNEP/DB 0.1 PNEP/DB 0.32 PNEP/DB
Deep 18/41, 482 yds 17/25, 381 yds 5/17, 180 yds
1 TD/0 INT 1 TD/3 INT 1 TD/1 INT
0.58 PNEP/DB 0.85 PNEP/DB 0.29 PNEP/DB

His performance doesn’t stand out much anywhere on the field. Even in short passes to the right, where he had a 10/0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he was only worth 0.32 Passing NEP per drop back. While that’s well above the average play for a quarterback -- the overall 2015 average was 0.07 -- it’s somewhat below expectations with 10 more touchdowns than interceptions.

Where Ryan really struggled was in the middle of the field. Although he had his best Passing NEP per drop back going deep to this area -- 0.85 -- he still threw more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (one).

The most concerning part of Ryan’s middle-of-the-field struggles came in short yardage, where he threw seven interceptions and no touchdowns. He had interception problems in the red zone, but only two of the seven picks in this area occurred inside the 20-yard line.

These issues mainly came from not seeing linebackers dropping back into coverage. This caused a few puzzling interceptions, which helped make his overall performance look much worse than it was.

Even with all those picks and no touchdowns in this area of the field, Ryan was still worth 0.1 Passing NEP per drop back.

2016 Performance

This past season, Ryan's production increased everywhere.

2016 Left Middle Right
Short 101/141, 918 yds 74/101, 944 yds 132/182, 1408 yds
10 TD/1 INT 7 TD/2 INT 9 TD/1 INT
0.35 PNEP/DB 0.45 PNEP/DB 0.42 PNEP/DB
Deep 21/42, 556 yds 16/23, 384 yds 19/32, 678 yds
5 TD/1 INT 3 TD/2 INT 3 TD/0 INT
0.68 PNEP/DB 1.17 PNEP/DB 1.41 PNEP/DB

He went deep more often, especially to the right, where his attempts increased drastically (17 in '15 to 32 in '16). That area of the field also experienced the biggest jump in efficiency, going from 0.29 Passing NEP per drop back last season to 1.41 this season.

Going deep down the middle was also more kind to Ryan in 2016. Despite having almost the same number of completions, attempts, and yards to that area, the flip of touchdowns and interceptions (1/3 to 3/1) sparked a 1.17 Passing NEP per drop back.

Atlanta turned into one of the NFL's best deep passing teams this year, but unfortunately, that's where the New England Patriots happen to defend the best. This makes Ryan’s improvement in short passes over the middle so important for their Super Bowl matchup.

That part of the field still produced the most interceptions for Ryan in 2016, but they were drastically cut down from seven to two. He also gained seven touchdowns over the zero he had in 2015, and six of those seven came in the red zone, where Ryan was also a much improved passer. Part of his improvement was due to an ability to spread the ball around.

In 2015, Julio Jones led the team in short targets over the middle with 44, which was 28 percent of Ryan's pass attempts in that area. This past season, Mohamed Sanu led the team in this category with 22 targets, while Jones was second with 20. Sanu's ability to work the middle allowed Jones to work more on the outside, where most of his damage was done.

It also allowed Jones to be more efficient when getting targets in that area, as his Reception NEP per target went from 0.58 to 0.91.

Passing NEP Improvement

In 2016, the average overall Passing NEP per drop back for quarterbacks was 0.10. Ryan improved at least that much in all six sections of the field during the 2016 season. Here’s what his Passing NEP per drop back jump looks like from year-to-year.

2015-16 Left Middle Right
Short +0.10 +0.35 +0.10
Deep +0.10 +0.32 +1.12

Atlanta has beaten teams all over the field during the regular season. When looking at Ryan’s metrics, it’s pretty easy to see why.

The Falcons have a roster that allows for this type of production. If one part gets slowed down, there are others that can pick up the slack. It’s what makes this offense one of the best we’ve seen and why they’re a win away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

There are many reasons why the offense has clicked like it has, but at the heart of it is the improvement from their quarterback.