RENTON — Ask the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive players about what jumps out first when watching video of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and you’ll get several different answers.
“His accuracy,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said.
“He has a strong arm,” strong safety Kam Chancellor said.
“He gets the ball out really quick,” linebacker K.J. Wright said.
That wide range of answers shows just how well Ryan has performed this season.
When the Seahawks face the Falcons in the divisional playoffs Saturday at the Georgia Dome, their biggest task will be dealing with a quarterback playing as well as any in the NFL.
Ryan is perhaps at the top of the list of NFL MVP candidates this season. He finished the season 373-for-534 for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. His 117.1 passer rating led the league, as did his 9.3 yards per attempt. He was second in the league in both yards and touchdowns, and finished third in completion percentage at 69.9 percent. After the season ended he was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
And Ryan got better as the season progressed. The Falcons finished the season on a four-game winning streak, and during that streak Ryan completed 74.2 percent of his passes, had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-0, and compiled a quarterback rating of 133.7.
Therefore, the Seahawks are well aware of the challenge they face.
“They have a tremendously experienced quarterback that there’s nothing that phases him,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “You can’t fool him, you just have to try and out-execute him.”
Ryan has been a solid starter since arriving in the league in 2008, and he set an NFL record by notching 56 wins in his first five seasons, a number matched by Seattle’s Russell Wilson this season. However, he’s never been as good as he’s been this year, as his previous best passer rating was 99.1 in 2012.
And Ryan has all kinds of weapons to work with. Julio Jones may be the league’s best receiver, catching 83 passes for 1,409 yards this season despite missing two games. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to catch 84 passes out of the backfield. And 13 different players caught touchdown passes from Ryan this season.
“It’s the efficiency,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said about the main reason for Ryan’s success. “He has a really good feel for the offense. He’s got a lot of confidence in his arm. Obviously he’s got a really good wide receiver to throw to [in Jones], essentially he can put the ball anywhere and that guy is going to go up and contest for it. You could just tell he’s exuding confidence, the play calling is really good, it’s fluidity in the offense, they’re staying on schedule, it’s going to be a good challenge.”
So how does a team slow down a quarterback playing that well?
“You put him on the ground,” Richard said simply.
Seattle actually had success doing that when the teams played during the regular season. The Seahawks sacked Ryan four times and subjected him to 13 quarterback hits in a game won by Seattle 26-24 on Oct. 16. Defensive end Michael Bennett was constantly in Ryan’s face before going down injured in the third quarter. The Seahawks were able to generate that kind of pressure despite defensive end Frank Clark missing the game because of injury.
Yet Ryan was still able to find some effectiveness, despite the pressure. Ryan still completed 27 of 42 passes for 335 yards and three TDs, giving Carroll reason to praise Ryan’s accuracy even while under pressure.
“His accuracy is phenomenal,” Carroll said. “It really is phenomenal. You don’t ever have a guy really covered when he’s throwing it, and particularly when it’s [Mohamed] Sanu and Julio, those guys are apt to make the play when the ball is thrown. He puts it in all of the right spots and he’s fantastic at it — and in difficult body positions, too. Falling away and having to move and that kind of stuff, he just does all of that and still finds a way to put the ball right on the money.”
Bennett, Clark and Cliff Avril are all healthy and available for Saturday’s re-match, so the Seahawks have the pass-rushing firepower to hound Ryan. Seattle also can take comfort from having kept Ryan quiet for most of their October meeting — with the exception of the third quarter, when coverage breakdowns and sideline meltdowns contributed to Ryan throwing all three of his TDs.
But when allowed any kind of window Ryan made Seattle pay, and when the Seahawks see Ryan again Saturday they need to do everything they can to keep that window as small as possible.
For more on the Seattle sports scene, check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at www.heraldnet.com/tag/seattle-sidelines, or follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.