The Falcons have a good core in place on offense. They have the franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, the superstar receiver in Julio Jones, and good complementary skill players around them. Their biggest area of concern though, as is the case with most teams that struggled in 2014, is the offensive line.
Normally, the quarterback gets the blame when a team doesn’t win. Matt Ryan, however, is last on the list of reasons why the Falcons have gone 10-22 over the last two seasons. Last year, he led the offense to 23.8 points per game (12th in the NFL) despite a leaky offensive line. One can certainly forgive Ryan for some inconsistency (and sometimes being a little gun-shy) when the pocket was collapsing around him regularly.
Surprisingly, despite their 6-9 record, the Falcons still had a chance to win the NFC South and reach the playoffs in the final week of the season. But in their showdown against the Panthers, the O-line provided one of the worst performances we saw on tape in the NFL all season. Ryan was sacked a season-high 6 times and constantly under duress. It’s tough to succeed as a quarterback when your linemen are repeatedly pushed back into you like they were all game vs. Carolina, as shown on the play below. Here Ryan’s right guard was already in his lap at the top of his drop. Ryan was forced to sidestep and climb the pocket, where another pass rusher was waiting for him for the sack.
The line was a significant reason for Atlanta’s failures in 2014. Somehow, they only allowed 31 sacks, tying for 13th fewest in the NFL. But that’s more of a function of Ryan’s ability to anticipate throws, get rid of the ball, and elude pressure.
It was also a result of what the Falcons did on offense. They used lots of play-action and max protection. They also used chips from running backs and kept tight ends in to help out Atlanta’s struggling tackles. Keeping so many players in to protect limits how many receivers can release into routes. Fewer receivers generally means more double-teams and an easier task overall for the defense.
New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan brings with him an outside-zone blocking-scheme. Shanahan did a great job of mixing in play-action off of these runs last season in Cleveland. In fact, play-action accounted for a significant amount of the Browns’ big plays in 2014. Matt Ryan should thrive in his system.
It will be critical that the Falcons get more athletic at the guard positions, though, especially after long-time Falcons left guard Justin Blalock was cut earlier this offseason. The guards are very important in a zone-blocking scheme because they need to be athletic enough to get up to the 2nd level and block linebackers. They need to be athletic to stay on those blocks too. Hopefully for the Falcons, this scheme will enable them to improve a running game that was ranked 24th in the NFL last season.
The Falcons also need help at tackle. Both positions were turnstiles for pass rushers a year ago, and this hurt the offense for obvious reasons. 2014 first-round draft pick Jake Matthews has the athleticism to be a good left tackle, but he had an awful rookie season. Pass rushers overpowered him with ease. Our feeling all season was that he has the tools to be a good tackle, but he needs a full offseason in an NFL weight-training program, which players don’t get until after their rookie year. But now he’s recovering from a Lisfranc injury that occurred in Atlanta’s Week 17 loss to the Panthers. Who knows how much this will prevent him from adding the NFL strength he was missing during his rookie season.
It would be wise for the Falcons to take another running back in the Draft to help out their running game, but they absolutely have to add more talent and depth to the offensive line. They were hit hard with injuries in 2014, losing left tackle Sam Baker for the year in the preseason (which forced rookie Jake Matthews from right tackle to left tackle) as well as their starting and back-up centers in the first half of the season. They can’t afford to have injuries impact their offense like they did a year ago.