Matt Ryan was better than his numbers suggested in a down 2017. He was worse than his numbers — which were bad on their own — in the Falcons' 18-12 loss to the Eagles to open the 2018 season.
Steve Sarkisian is an easy target, and the Falcons' maligned second-year offensive coordinator deserves ridicule for his team's red-zone incompetence (1-of-5), much of it with Julio Jones inexplicably not on the field despite him being a one-man show for Atlanta offensively in between the twenties.
But Ryan, whose struggles in his hometown of Philadelphia aren't new, threw an awful fourth quarter interception in the red zone that would've given the Falcons the lead. He completed only 21-of-43 passes without a touchdown and took four sacks, including an awful one on Atlanta's last-ditch drive, en route to a 57.4 rating.
It's tough to say what was worse — Ryan's pocket presence or scattershot accuracy. He missed Jones short and deep, with the pair clearly not on the same page on the aforementioned red zone pick.
And yet with the pitchfork-wielding Sarkisian and Ryan critics out in numbers as the visitors trailed 10-6 early in the fourth quarter of an ugly game even by preseason standards, Falcons No. 3 S Damontae Kazee took matters into his own hands and nearly bailed out his offense.
Kazee, until tonight, was infamous because he ended Jaguars WR Marqise Lee's season in the third exhibition week with a helmet to Lee's knee. And he was probably only playing because starter, former first-rounder Keanu Neal, already had been ruled out following a non-contact knee injury.
It was Kazee's clean hit on Eagles rookie TE Dallas Goedert that jarred the ball loose for Deion Jones to intercept it. Two plays later, Tevin Coleman scored from nine yards out to give Atlanta a 12-10 lead before Matt Bryant missed the PAT.
But a rough defensive series by Vic Beasley, who had a bad missed tackle on third-and-8, and Jones, who took himself out of one run play and was removed by Eagles C Jason Kelce on the other, allowed Philadelphia to regain the lead, 18-12, with just more than two-and-a-half minutes remaining.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because we just saw it in January, when the visiting Falcons had the Eagles on the ropes in the divisional round but were unable to punch it in from nine yards out on four tries, three of them to Jones.
And Atlanta, thanks to completions from Ryan to Jones of 36, 18 and 9 yards, quickly positioned itself for red-zone redemption only to squander the opportunity once more.
Ryan finished 1-of-8 in the red zone Thursday night, the last incompletion coming on the game's final play, a throw intended for Jones that was well out of bounds in the left corner of the end zone. Atlanta ranked 23rd inside the opponents 20 last season, Sarkisian's first replacing Kyle Shanahan, whose No. 1 scoring attack ranked 9th in the red area two years ago.
Personnel can't be blamed. Not with Jones, fellow jumbo receiver Mohamed Sanu and a pair of backs with a nose for pay dirt in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. (It should be noted Coleman was left to finish Thursday after Freeman exited early with a knee injury.)
The Falcons' defense played extremely well until its final drive despite missing Neal, Jones, Beasley, Desmond Trufant and Takk McKinley for stretches with injuries, and everyone but Neal managed to return. Jones was monstrous, finishing with 10-169 receiving — his franchise-record 40th 100-receiving yard effort — and being mostly uncoverable.
But the biggest issues for Atlanta as last season ended in this same building in January — Sarkisian, Ryan and red-zone failures — were once again the story seven months later. Jones' invisibility in the red zone, where the Falcons have vowed to feature him more, until the fourth quarter is completely inexcusable. And the former MVP Ryan, who had at least half of his 12 interceptions last season deflected, really had no one else to blame for an awful showing.