FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Matt Ryan is supposed to be one of the NFL's rising stars at quarterback.
The ratings tell a different story.
Matty Ice is down near the bottom of the list, much closer to journeymen such as Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton than the star power of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Certainly, the struggling Falcons expected more from No. 2 than an efficiency rating that puts him behind 20 other signal-callers.
"That's not something I get too hung up on," Ryan said Wednesday. "When I evaluate play, I evaluate the wins and losses of a quarterback. Certainly that hasn't been good enough up to this point. I need to play better. All our guys need to play better. That's what we're trying to do."
The Falcons (2-3) expected to have one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses, especially when they added rookie receiver Julio Jones to a unit that already included Ryan and fellow Pro Bowlers Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner.
Instead, Ryan and the Falcons have taken a step backward. Not only have they already lost as many regular-season games as all of 2010, they're still struggling to find some sort of offensive rhythm heading into Sunday's game against Cam Newton and the high-powered Carolina Panthers.
"Certainly you have expectations to go out and play well," Ryan said. "We haven't done that. But it's a long year. We're at that point where we've done some things really well, but we've also done some things poorly. We've got to feed off those positive things, those things we have done well, and try to extend it out through 60 minutes. That's really where my mindset is at right now."
The poor things are easy to pick out, and many of them extend beyond Ryan's control. There have been silly mistakes and dumb penalties. The offensive line has been leaky at times. There hasn't been nearly enough balance between the passing game and the Turner-led running attack. The play-calling of coordinator Mike Mularkey has raised some eyebrows.
Ryan has thrown the ball far more than the Falcons would like — he's tied for second with Brady in passing attempts, averaging nearly 40 a game and ranking behind only Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, who love to throw it all over the field.
Not so for the Falcons, who thrived during Ryan's first three seasons by running the ball effectively, controlling the clock and putting themselves in manageable third-down situations.
For some reason, that's gotten all out of whack this year.
"That's our DNA. That's what we've built here," said Turner, who has gone three straight games without rushing for 100 yards. "We've got to be able to run it and throw it. We don't want to be one-dimensional. That makes it easier for teams to defend us. As long as we're using all our weapons, we should be fine."
Forced to the air more than his first three seasons — Ryan came into the year with a career average of just under 32 passes a game — he's not been nearly as effective. He's already got six interceptions, and all those extra throws have only produced seven touchdown passes. As a team, the Falcons are way down in yards (19th) and points (21st), putting even more focus on Ryan's performance.
That's not entirely fair, of course.
Ryan is playing behind an offensive line that includes a new starter at guard, Garrett Reynolds, and was without longtime starting center Todd McClure for three of the five games because of a lingering knee problem. Not only has the protection suffered, resulting in 14 sacks, but McClure's absence has forced Ryan to take over most of the calls for protection schemes.
"I think he's playing well under the circumstances with what we've got going on," White said. "He's sort of in control of everything now. Todd made a lot of the calls. Now Matt's got to do that. He's got a lot on his mind."
The line has done a better job protecting Ryan the last two weeks, but he's still is pace for by far the most sacks in his career. He's also taking far too many hits even when he gets the ball off.
"We've put him in some disadvantages," Gonzalez said. "We've got to make sure he's standing upright. It's not just about getting sacks. When you're in a quarterback's face, constantly harassing him, he changes. I don't care who it is."
Ryan insists that he feels fine despite all the hits, and he would never call out his line publicly. Some of the protection issues would undoubtedly be improved with more balance between running and passing, but the Falcons haven't had that luxury in most games because they've been playing from behind so much.
"The more we keep him protected, the more he'll shine," Gonzalez said. "That's something we need to do collectively. It's never be just one player. I don't care who it is. Football is the ultimate team sport. I would never say, 'He's got to play better.' We've all got to play better. We can help him, and he can help us."
For now, there's no denying that Ryan and the offense have yet to hit their stride — or even look as good as they did a year ago while the Falcons went 13-3 and won the NFC South.
"We're just not clicking," White said. "We're not where we need to be right now. But it's only the sixth game of the season. We've got nothing to do but get better. I'm trying to look at the bright side."
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