It stands to reason that the only reason for the existence of the offensive line is to push the other guys backwards, allow the backs to run the ball effectively, and give the quarterback time to make plays and get the ball in the hands of his play-makers. That is the only thing that the offensive line needs to do, execute proper blocks against the Broncos pass-rush, open holes, in the run game, and generally protect Matt Ryan.
That is obviously easier said than done. The Falcons did a fantastic job of keeping Ryan clean in the pocket against the Chiefs; however, the point must be conceded that Kansas City was without their best pass-rusher Tamba Hali. Atlanta would not have been able to protect Ryan quite as well had Hali been on the field. The performances by Garrett Reynolds and Sam Baker on the line were not just enough, they looked absolutely outstanding. Reynolds looked miserable last year, and he looked very good against Kansas City. Baker was also terrible in 2011; on Sunday he blocked the heck out of whoever he was assigned to.
The Falcons offensive line, especially Reynolds and Baker, are going to have to keep up that excellent work Monday night against the Denver Broncos. Denver, unlike Kansas City, runs a 4-3 defensive scheme that is similar and will try to do the same things that Philadelphia does by using a ‘wide-9′ defense. Basically the defense ends will line up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles or tight end, whoever is at the end of the line, and try to get up the field to rush the passer.
The Broncos can do this. Elvis Dumervil is an outstanding pass-rusher, and is going to be more in his comfort zone lining up with a hand in the dirt. The other defensive end, Derek Wolfe, is a rookie and has been projected as more of a defensive tackle than a defensive end. I’m not expecting much from him, especially since it’s likely he will be lined up with Tyson Clabo.
The other player to keep an eye on is outside linebacker Von Miller. The second year player out of Texas A&M is a pass rusher extraordinaire, the kind of player a team can hang their hat on from a pass rush perspective. The added fact that he can get after the quarterback from the second level makes him even harder to block. Just look at what Denver did to Ben Roethlisberger; they sacked and hit him often. Were it not for his outstanding ability to scramble, he probably would have hit the deck even more.
There are a couple positives to look at. First, Pittsburgh’s offensive line is an absolutely miserable patchwork group. Few of those players are really ready to start. There is no debating that almost down to the man, the Falcons offensive line is better. Individually they are better, and as a unit they are better. This will help against the Broncos.
Secondly, the Falcons can run the ball. The Steelers ran for 75 total yards against Denver, and really don’t run the ball much anyways. They almost always use shotgun sets, and allow Roethlisberger to use his Houdini-esque magic to scramble and make plays. The Falcons didn’t run the ball much against Kansas City, but they can run the ball. Their bread and butter for the past couple years has been running the ball.
Finally, the Broncos run defense isn’t particularly stout. I know, the Steelers didn’t do well, but 1. they aren’t good at running the ball anymore and 2. made no real commitment to it. The Broncos will be without inside linebacker D.J. Williams, who is their best run stuffing linebacker. Their players at defensive tackle are also below average players. Defensive tackle is a very thin position for the Broncos, and if that’s going to be the case, the middle/inside linebackers will have to be great. Let’s just say that Wesley Woodyard isn’t Williams by a long shot.
I expect the Falcons to try to run the ball, get the Broncos defense to focus on the run, and then be able to play-action and throw the ball very effectively. Atlanta won’t try to run roughshod all over the Broncos. I’m not sure they can, but they also don’t need to. However, they need to run just enough to make the pass rush hesitate to read run or pass, and make the secondary/linebackers cheat up to play the run. Play-action passes take a lot of stress off the offensive line in pass protection.
One added element in this Falcons offense is the use of the screen pass. This is another tool that the Falcons can use to their advantage to not only gain positive yardage on short high-percentage throws, but also allows them to catch the pass-rush overpursuing and slow it down on following plays. The same can be said for draw plays, where the quarterback drops back, looks like he is going to pass and that the back is in pass-protection, and the the quarterback hands the ball of to the back while the defensive ends scream along the outside, effectively out of the play.
All of these things are ways that the Falcons offensive line can play well straight up against the Broncos front seven. Most importantly, the Falcons also have the tools necessary to use fakes, screens, and draws to slow down that defensive front and open up holes down the field in the passing game. This is going to be a huge test for the Falcons offensive line especially in pass protection, and if they can pass it against the Broncos, they will do very well with most of the remaining schedule.