FLOWERY BRANCH — Unlike the folks in Washington, the Falcons took some major precautions to ensure that quarterback Matt Ryan did not fall over the physical cliff this season.
The Falcons knew that with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter pass-first attack and the full implementation of wide receiver Julio Jones into the offense, that Ryan would be asked to do more physically this season.
“That’s the one thing that we wanted to make sure of, that he started his offseason program earlier than anybody,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said Wednesday. “We thought if we started the season stronger, we were going to be stronger at the end of the season.”
Ryan will face a stiff test against the New York Giants, who eliminated the Falcons from the wild-card round of the playoffs last season. The teams meet Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Other than a slight cold and a few coughs, Ryan contends the plan has worked. It has also helped that his offensive line has yielded 24 sacks, tied for seventh-fewest in the league.
“Yeah, I feel great,” said Ryan when asked about his physical conditioning. “We’ve got three games to go in the regular season and I feel great. Besides being under the weather a little bit, my body feels really good. I think a lot of that has to do with the offseason that I had.”
Ryan is on pace to attempt a career-high 629 passes this season. That is a hallmark number.
New England quarterback Tom Brady, who’s in his 13th season, has thrown over 600 passes just twice over his storied career (601 attempts in 2002 and 611 in 2011). Denver’s Peyton Manning, who’s in his 15th season, has attempted more than 600 passes just once (679 attempts in 2010).
San Diego’s Philip Rivers and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning have never had 600-pass years. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is on pace for his fifth season of 600 or more attempts.
Ryan’s previous high was 571 attempts in 2010. In his fifth season, he’s guided the Falcons into playoffs four times.
“I certainly would stand with those who acknowledge that Matt has done an outstanding job in the league from Day One,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “Some of the things that he has accomplished, some of those late games, miraculous comebacks that the Falcons have had under his direction … Matt certainly has triggered all of that.”
Ryan contends that he’s held up well with the increased workload.
“I feel good and I think one of the things is that as a quarterback, you have to prepare yourself to go out there and compete every week,” Ryan said. “Whether … you have to throw the football a lot or if it’s making good decisions at the line of scrimmage to help out the run game, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Said Smith: “Every year, we increase the workload of what we ask our quarterback to do because we feel like he can handle it. Obviously, he’s done a very good job for us and it started early — putting more on his plate — back in Year One, when we went to the no-huddle offense in the second game of the season.”
Ryan started the season strong like the Falcons hoped, throwing for 11 touchdowns and two interceptions over the first four games. In Games 5 through 8, he had six touchdowns and four interceptions.
In the schedule’s third quarter, he dipped noticeably with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Last week, he had two touchdowns and one interception while the Panthers dominated time of possession.
With the top seed in the NFC still at stake, the Falcons need Ryan to finish with a flourish.
“I don’t think it’s too much for him,” running back Michael Turner said. “I think he’s handling it pretty well.”
Ryan senses that the team is ready to rebound from the embarrassing 30-20 loss to Carolina.
“Everybody’s energy this week has been really good,” Ryan said. “Guys were in here Monday and a lot of people yesterday just to start getting prepared.”
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