Ryan then cranked up the barometer with one crank of his arm. After he threw a 62-yard touchdown on his first pass (Video), Falcons fans were whispering the word "playoffs." One might think there's no place for Ryan to go but down, but it's just the opposite, thanks to two little letters ...
Matt Ryan's got IT.
I don't mean the proverbial "it," the one that transcends time and space and separates legends from superstars, yada yada yada. I'm talking about Intuitive Timing, I.T., and it's what truly separates NFL passers. Ryan's got it and he wasted no time showing it.
The call was made days before, when the offensive coaches were game planning for Detroit. They obviously trusted Ryan enough to make his first throw as demanding as a skinny post, which would require him to take a five-step drop, plant his back foot, transfer his weight, and throw accurately, with velocity, more than 25 yards downfield.
Only about half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL can throw the skinny post well. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and his staff knew that Ryan was one of them.
The success of Ryan's first pass was contingent upon the Lions playing a three-deep zone coverage, or Cover 3, where the two cornerbacks would be responsible for the deep outside thirds and a safety would cover the deep middle third. The skinny post works best against Cover 3 because the ball is thrown between the thirds, as the receiver streaks between the corner and the safety.
Mularkey's challenge: Detroit's favorite coverage is two-deep, or Cover 2 -- not good for a skinny post.
The Falcons initially aligned with two eligible receivers to Ryan's left (WR Michael Jenkins and TE Ben Hartsock) and two eligible receivers to Ryan's right (FB Ovie Mughelli and WR Roddy White). The balanced formation allowed Detroit to initially align in their preferred Cover 2. Thanks to some clever scheming, Mularkey dictated what he wanted.
The key was the pre-snap motion, across the formation, by Hartsock. It now meant the Falcons outnumbered the Lions to one side and the Lions couldn't remain in their Cover 2. Detroit did just as Mularkey anticipated, dropping one of their two safeties down into the box and shifting to a Cover 3. Bingo.
Michael Jenkins ran a textbook skinny post, widening the corner with an outside stem, to create a bigger passing lane for Ryan. By the time Jenkins' left foot planted at 11 yards, to break back to the post, the ball was on its way.
Great passers need to have that kind of anticipation. If Ryan had thrown the ball a hundredth of a second too early or too late, Michael Jenkins would not have scored.
On his first NFL pass, Ryan showed a high level of trust in his coaches, teammates, and most importantly, himself, to throw the ball well before Jenkins broke. That takes a high degree of fortitude and Intuitive Timing -- enough to show that IT's only the beginning.