Four days ago, Derek Carr picked apart the Buccaneers defense to become the 10th player in NFL history to pass for 500 yards and four touchdowns. Tonight on Thursday Night Football, Tampa Bay will host Matt Ryan, the ninth player to join that club.
The Falcons quarterback is in the midst of a career season. He leads the NFL in passing yards (2,636) and touchdown passes (19) and is second to only Tom Brady in quarterback rating, ESPN's QBR and Football Outsiders' DVOA.
Ryan's play slipped last season — Kyle Shanahan's first as Atlanta's offensive coordinator — but it has rebounded because he has limited turnovers and become a better deep passer (deep passes are throws that travel at least 20 yards). In the offseason, he trained with two former pitchers to build his arm strength and clean up his mechanics.
Ryan, who had been one of the league's least aggressive passers, leads the NFL this season in deep pass yards (721), is tied for the lead in deep pass touchdowns (seven) and has the second-best quarterback rating on deep passes (140.3). His average pass length of 8.9 yards ranks sixth and is his highest since 2011.
If you thought Julio Jones, Ryan's favorite target, kept defensive coordinators up at night before, he's an even more dangerous deep threat now. Jones, who is responsible for 39 percent of Ryan's deep pass yards, is averaging a career-high 20 yards per reception.
Jones might be the most complete receiver in the NFL. He's big, fast, physical and lines up all over the field. You'll see him on both sides of the ball and in the slot.
Name the route — fly, post, dig, out, curl, slant — he runs it. Because cornerbacks are so concerned about Jones beating them deep, they often line up several yards off the line of scrimmage. This cushion leaves them vulnerable to quick hitches, where Jones appears to run a fly route but stops suddenly and turns toward the quarterback.
Another Falcons staple: the play-action pass. Of Jones' 43 catches, 14 have come after a run fake and for an average gain of 26.4 yards.
Jones recorded one of his largest gains in Week 2 against the Raiders. Let's go to the All-22 coaches film to see how the play unfolded.
Situation: Falcons 21, Raiders 21, second and 1 at the Oakland 45-yard line, 11:15 left in the fourth quarter
The Falcons come to the line in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) with the tight ends on the right side of the offensive line. Jones lines up out wide to the left while Mohamed Sanu lines up on the right but tight to the formation.
Atlanta adds a wrinkle to the play beside a fake handoff to running back Devonta Freeman. After the snap, Sanu runs to the backfield as though he might take the handoff on an end around. This is pure distraction. While Sanu carried the ball 10 times for the Bengals last season, he has not had a rushing attempt this season.
The objective here is to not only draw the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage but also freeze the single high safety, who is supposed to help cornerback Sean Smith in deep coverage of Jones.
As the Falcons hoped, safety Reggie Nelson pauses to confirm that Ryan has not handed the ball off. By the time Nelson turns his attention to Jones, it's too late. He doesn't have time to react, and the receiver cuts in front of him on a post route. Ryan's pass hangs in the air long enough for Jones to beat the defenders and pick up 48 yards.
The Falcons execute the same concept five weeks later against the Chargers, but they manipulate the San Diego defense a little differently.
Situation: Chargers 10, Falcons 6, first and 10 at the San Diego 36-yard line, 11:41 left in the second quarter
A key difference here is that the Chargers are in a Cover 2 zone defense with two safeties deep. When Jones crosses over to the right side of the field, safety Adrian Phillips should be in position to cover him.
Why isn't he? Like Nelson in the previous play, the Falcons divert Phillips' attention away from Jones. This time, it's not the backfield run action that causes the breakdown — it's tight end Jacob Tamme's curl route over the middle.
In Cover 2, Tamme is linebacker Jatavis Brown's responsibility. When Phillips takes a few steps toward Tamme, it costs him the depth he needs to cover Jones.
Jones takes advantage of Phillips' brief pursuit of Tamme, as he cuts in front of free safety Dwight Lowery and runs through the zone that Phillips should be occupying. Ryan's pass hits Jones in stride, and the Falcons pick up 50 yards.
Ryan and the Falcons lead the NFL with 13 pass plays of at least 40 yards. Jones has caught five of those passes, one fewer than league leaders Sammie Coates and A.J. Green.
The Bucs defense, meanwhile, has yet to prove it can limit such gains. It has allowed nine pass plays of at least 40 yards, tied for second-most.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.