FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons sent a strong message at the start of last week’s game, although the result was unsuccessful.
On the very first play against Detroit, Ryan made a play-action fake to running back Devonta Freeman, tried to gather himself, and threw a pass deep downfield to Jones, who had two defenders in his area. Ryan probably would have hit Jones in stride off the double move if tight end Levine Toilolo hadn’t allowed Anthony Zettel to pressure Ryan into a rushed, short, incomplete throw.
Despite the misfire, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said the deep ball definitely sent a message.
“There’s no doubt we want to be the best attacking team in football,” Sarkisian said. “We want to stay aggressive in all aspects of our game. … We just felt like that was a good opportunity for us. We liked the play design. It didn’t play out exactly the way we wanted, but again, I think for our guys knowing going into that game that that was the style of game we were going to go for, went for it.
“We didn’t hit that one. We didn’t hit a few other deep balls. But we took our shots. And we really believe over time, if we continue to work at it in practice and do it in ballgames, we’re going to hit some of those big ones that are going to really have an effect not only on the passing game, but really help our running game. It’s a big part of our offense. We’ve just got to keep stressing it. I think sooner or later, with the players we have, we’re going to make those plays.”
Entering Sunday’s matchup with the Buffalo Bills, Ryan is only 2-for-11 for 122 yards and a touchdown on passes thrown 20-plus air yards down the field — and the Falcons are still 3-0. Those are, of course, lower-percentage throws, but Ryan was 36-of-71 for 1,268 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions on such throws last season.
Ryan was 0-for-5 in the 20-plus air-yard category last week against the Lions, with four targets to Jones and another to fellow speedster Taylor Gabriel. Four were end zone shots, including two where Jones easily could have drawn a penalty on the defense, and another where Jones was just slightly out of bounds.
• 2017 schedule, results
The Falcons are close to connecting on those plays. And as Sarkisian said, having a dynamic playmaker such as Jones and a speedster such as Gabriel makes going deep that much easier for Ryan. Now it’s just a matter of the timing being right, banged-up guys such as Jones (back) being healthy, and the blocking holding up. Remember, the Falcons will be without starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder for the second consecutive game due to a concussion, putting the pressure on Ty Sambrailo to protect Ryan and give him enough time to complete such throws.
The Bills boast the league’s top scoring defense, allowing just 12.3 points per game after three games. In terms of the deep ball, Buffalo has held its opposing quarterbacks — the New York Jets’ Josh McCown, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Denver’s Trevor Siemian — to 3-of-11 for 83 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions on throws 20-plus air yards downfield.
Ryan’s most productive day throwing downfield last season was against Carolina in Week 4, when he was 4-of-6 on passes of 20-plus air yards for 173 yards with two touchdowns. That was the same game Jones went off for a career-high 300 receiving yards against a Panthers defense then guided by coordinator Sean McDermott.
Well, it’s Week 4 of the regular season again. And McDermott is now the head coach of the Bills. Maybe Ryan, Jones and the Falcons can go deep once again.