This year marks the seventh season of the relationship between Mike Smith and Matt Ryan. The two began work in 2008, serving as the cornerstone pieces for a Falcons franchise that has since experienced its most successful run in team history. Ryan's been a major player in the team's success and he's now more of a savvy veteran than a young, up-and-coming QB.
Seven years as a successful starting quarterback in the NFL means you've seen nearly all there is to see. Smith says Ryan's been the team's leader since Day 1 and now he's as much of a coach as he is a quarterback.
"I think he's like a coach on the field," Smith said earlier this week. "He has a very good understanding of our offense. He has a very good understanding of no huddle. That, to me, is very important because you've got to get to the line of scrimmage, see what the defense is showing you and have the cat-and-mouse game with the defense in terms of what they're presenting. I think he's done a very good job. I think Matt is probably one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in all of the league."
Ryan's cerebral approach means he's able to correctly diagnose what he's seeing from the defense, a helpful trait for a position that spends much of its time dodging oncoming rushers. Pro Football Focus recently shared a stat that showcases Ryan's heady play and how it translates on the field.
Matt Ryan's PFF Grade without pressure in 2013, 9.7. Under pressure? 0.3 — Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 9, 2014
While the margin between Ryan's PFF grade with pressure and without is large, what's most notable is the positive grade for both. In many cases last season, Ryan correctly identified the pressure and was still able to produce some positive plays. A quarterback without the mental makeup of Ryan might not have fared as well.
Ryan is exceptionally dangerous without pressure, as most quarterbacks are, making the mission to improve his protection in the offseason a sound one. A healthy and heavier on the left side along with first-round rookie Jake Matthews at right tackle and free-agent guard Jon Asamoah, should equal much better protection this season.
Solid protection with or without a pass rush will give Ryan time to connect with Julio Jones and Roddy White and once that happens, as we saw in 2012, anything can happen. Solid protection for Ryan against pass rushers will hinder every opponent, slowing the rush and allowing Ryan the time he needs to make his passing connections. With a smart football mind on his shoulders, Ryan will always make the offense better, no matter what is happening around him, but improved play all around him should get the Falcons back into playoff contention in 2014.