Lofty expectations have played into Ryan's sophomore struggles

After watching Matt Ryan toss two more interceptions in the Falcons' 28-19 loss to the Panthers on Sunday, league observers are starting to wonder if the 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year is suffering from a sophomore slump.

Ryan, who led the Falcons to the playoffs in his first season, has completed only 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,008 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His 78.8 passer rating ranks 20th in the league.

Although those are respectable numbers, they represent a decline and are indicative of Ryan's possible regression.

It took him just nine games this season to exceed his 2008 interception total (11). He's thrown at least one pick in six straight games, while his completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating are all down from a year ago.

Some of Ryan's drop in production can be attributed to the Falcons thrusting more responsibility on his shoulders, but the fact that the team beefed up its offensive personnel in the offseason led many to believe that he would take a significant step in his second season.

"The guy was so spectacular as a rookie that everyone expected him to play at an elite level this season," said an NFC coach whose team has faced Ryan in 2009.

The coach's sentiment does point out a problem in calling Ryan's struggles part of a trend that indicates a slump. Ryan set the bar so high during his rookie campaign that it would have taken a Pro Bowl-caliber season to satisfy the expectations of those who were so quick to label him the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.

Of course, it was unfair to place the burden of those enormous expectations on Ryan based on his initial body of work. For as productive as he was in his initial season, the offense was built upon the explosive running skills of Michael Turner and it still functions at its best when the emphasis is on the ground game.

As the coach explained, Turner's presence alleviates the pressure on Ryan to act as the focal point of the offense. Defenses gear their game plans to take away Turner and the running game. Ryan is typically able to throw against less exotic looks and complete a high percentage of passes.

With defensive coordinators increasingly respecting Ryan's game, he has faced a host of complex coverages that have tested his decision-making under pressure. While Ryan has struggled to adjust to the different looks, opponents believe he will eventually adapt.

"He has been a little off of late, and he may not be fully ready to act as the driver of their offense," said an NFC coach. "But the kid is legit. No doubt about it."

Will Westbrook's injury ground Eagles?

Brian Westbrook's second concussion in three weeks will undoubtedly sideline him for a significant amount of time. The Eagles are now faced with the prospect of heading into the thick of their season without their top playmaker.

Whereas that may have hampered Philadelphia's high-flying attack in the past, the Eagles appear to have the pieces in place to deal with the loss of one of the league's most versatile weapons.

Westbrook has long been the driving force of the offense, but has been increasingly absent from the lineup in recent seasons. The selection of several explosive players over the past two drafts will help minimize his absence.

Rookie LeSean McCoy, the team's second-round pick, has already logged significant time and has comparable skills to Westbrook as a runner and receiver. The rookie is averaging 4.1 yards a carry and has gone over 80 yards rushing in two of his three starts. He also has 23 receptions and has flashed some of the explosiveness that was a Westbrook trademark as a receiver.

The emerging three-headed monster of DeSean Jackson, 2009 first-round pick Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek will help account for what Westbrook brought to the passing game. The trio accounts for 57.5 percent of the team's aerial attack and have been taking turns functioning as the team's lead receiver.

In addition, they each provide a big-play element that normally fell on Westbrook. Jackson (4 receiving touchdowns), Maclin (4) and Celek (5) have combined for 13 TD catches and have provided 22 explosive plays (more than 20 yards).

Favre helps Rice ascend

It is not a coincidence that Sidney Rice is enjoying the most productive season of his young career with Brett Favre as his quarterback. Favre has overseen the development of some of the game's finest players during his 19-year career, and his daily work with Rice is starting to pay significant dividends for the Vikings.

Rice, who has quietly emerged as the No.1 receiver in Minnesota, has topped the 100-yard receiving mark in three of his last four games. His seven-catch, 201-yard performance against the Lions is the most by a Minnesota receiver since Randy Moss tallied 204 receiving yards against the Bears in 1999.

While Rice entered the league regarded as a potential big-play threat when he was taken in the second round of the 2007 draft, he had failed to crack the century mark in his first 31 games. He only had four receptions of over 20 yards coming into this season. But this year, he already has 12 catches over 20 yards, including six of 40 yards or more.

Although Favre's big arm and penchant for going deep has undoubtedly led to more opportunities for Rice, his steady tutelage of the young star cannot be underestimated. During Favre's time in Green Bay, the Packers had Antonio Freeman and Donald Driver earn Pro Bowl nods despite being drafted outside of the first round.

As unheralded pass catchers entering the league, Freeman and Driver quietly developed into studs and each credited their daily work with Favre as critical to their ascension to the ranks of the elite. Greg Jennings didn't make a Pro Bowl with Favre, but he benefited from his time with the veteran quarterback.

With Rice starting to make waves in Minnesota, Favre may soon have another playmaker singing his praises.

Belichick's gamble fits his profile

The Patriots' controversial decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 at their 28-yard line with the game hanging in the balance fits Bill Belichick's profile since Tom Brady became the quarterback.

Should Belichick have gone for it?

Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 28-yard line has been hotly debated. Read what our experts have to say about the decision and then tell us what you think. **Discuss ...**

Since 2001, the Patriots have converted 76.4 percent (68 of 89) of their fourth-down chances from 2 yards or less. Additionally, they have a 69.5 percent success rate (16 of 23) when throwing in those situations.

While Belichick's decision against the Colts has been widely debated, the Patriots have also shown a tendency to take such gambles in those situations. During their Week 3 matchup with the Falcons, they opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 with the ball on their 24-yard line with a six-point lead. Sammy Morris ran for 2 yards and the tactic was never questioned because it moved the chains.

Interestingly, the Patriots later converted a fourth-and-1 against the Falcons by throwing a quick pass to Moss to ice the game.

Belichick has endured an enormous amount of criticism from outsiders for the surprising decision against the Colts, but further examination of the coach's tendencies indicate the call may not have been as risky in his mind.

Extra points

» If you're looking for the reason the Panthers have been able to rebound from an 0-3 start and get back into playoff contention, look no further than DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Carolina has rushed for 1,020 yards in its last five games (204.0 average), and the duo has been chiefly responsible for the surge. Williams has averaged 128.0 yards per game during the five-game stretch and topped the 100-yard mark in three of those contests. With the team on the verge of evening its record, expect the Panthers to continue to rely on their formidable rush attack.

» The Titans' Chris Johnson joined select company by becoming one of only three players in league history to have more than 1,000 yards rushing while averaging more than 6.4 yards per carry in his team's first nine games. Jim Brown (1963) and Adrian Peterson (2007) are the only others to achieve the feat. Additionally, Johnson's 1,091 rushing yards are the most through nine games since Shaun Alexander amassed 1,114 yards through the opening nine games of the 2005 season.

» Lost in the Buccaneers' 25-23 defeat to the Dolphins was the record-setting performance of kicker Connor Barth. He connected on three 50-plus yard field goals, which tied the league mark for the most conversions of at least 50 yards in a single game.

» The Bengals' defense has emerged as one of the top units in the league behind the stellar play of their young cornerback tandem. Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph have provided blanket coverage on the perimeter, and their ability float between man-to-man and zone gives defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer tremendous flexibility in deciding how to attack offenses. With Zimmer dialing up selective pressure, Hall and Joseph have been picking off passes at an alarming rate with four apiece. With 11 intercptions this season, the Bengals as a team have nearly surpassed their 2008 interception total of 12 in only nine games.

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