Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: Matt Ryan (Falcons) and the Challenges of the Red Zone

Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio profiles a pair of Matt Ryan snaps where the challenges of managing the compressed space and time of the red zone get the better of the Falcons’ quarterback. 

Matt Ryan is an NFL starting quarterback who has generated top-five production at his position multiple times during his career. Even so, the red zone remains a challenge for most quarterbacks.

Football teams spend a large portion of practice on red-zone plays because of the challenges of decision-making and execution in a compressed space that shortens the amount of time available to an offense. Quarterbacks have to recognize coverage quickly and if something foils the plan, the quarterback needs to make an even quicker decision to keep the ball safe.

On consecutive drives against the Saints on Thanksgiving evening, the challenges of the red zone were too much for Ryan. The Saints deserve credit for closing Ryan’s passing lane on a play design with a quick drop and read, forcing Ryan to hold the ball too long.

When a defense can anticipate a quick-hitting play and force the quarterback to hold the ball, it increases the chance of a sack. In this case, the Saints force a turnover. While Ryan needs to protect the ball with both hands, the Saints’ edge rusher getting his hands into the passing lane sets up the dangerous situation for Ryan.

In the next series, Atlanta once again reaches the Saints’ green zone (inside the five). Although Rodney Harrison tells the national audience that the Saints coverage forced a sack and fumble on this play, a closer look reveals that Ryan bears the brunt of the responsibility.

Ryan failed to recognize that the position of the flat defender was a clear tell to deliver the shallow out to Calvin Ridley. Ryan should have seen this position pre-snap and immediately into his post-snap drop.

If he did, he would have made a more decisive drop, sold the potential of throwing the corner route working behind Ridley to hold the flat defender’s deeper position and then make an anticipatory throw at the top of Ridley’s stem to the receiver.

Even good NFL starting quarterbacks miss clear tells in the red zone. When evaluating NFL quarterback prospects in the college game, red zone management and processing is an area you should study carefully.

When a quarterback can make quick, accurate decisions with anticipation based on good reads, it’s a notable positive. If he’s hesitant, trying to buy time for a wide-open play rather than trust what his eyes should show him based on the leverage of coverage, it’s a sign that his processing needs work.

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