Offensive line play is really important. I’m a huge, huge proponent of having a great offensive line who can win in the trenches and then allow the skill players to make things happen. If you have excellent offensive line play, you’ll move the ball really well. If not, a team may still move the ball well, but the team will do so despite the offensive line. Winning becomes much more difficult when you aren’t productive in the trenches. And really, that goes for both sides of the ball.
The hallmark of the Falcons first three games of the season was the passing game, a passing game made possible by outstanding offensive line play. The Falcons line held the Kansas City Chief, and excellent pass-rushes in the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers completely in check. Three games, only 4 sacks and 13 hits registered by the opposing defense on Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. Great protection, and as a result Ryan was able to distribute the ball effectively and put a lot of points on the board.
The play of the offensive line took a decided turn for the worse in Week 4 against the Carolina Panthers. Carolina doesn’t really boast a particularly potent pass rush outside of defensive end Charles Johnson. There are teams, specifically the Denver Broncos, whose pass-rush has worried me more than the Panthers. I honestly didn’t think it was too big of a concern.
News flash: The Falcons offensive line isn’t a finished product, and as good as they have been, the also have shown they can be a liability. Sure the Falcons defeated the Panthers with a last second game winning field goal, but Matt Ryan and this offensive did it despite the offensive line, not because of it.
Against Carolina, the Falcons surrendered 7 sacks and 9 additional quarterback hits on Ryan. After one solitary game, the Falcons nearly doubled the number of hits Ryan has taken, and nearly tripled the amount of sacks they have given up. That doesn’t count the number of times Ryan was hurried in the pocket. That performance by the offensive line simply isn’t acceptable.
I read the stats. I digested what was said. Then I went back and looked at the tape. Ryan was constantly under pressure. One broadcaster summed it up by saying ‘Ryan has been under siege all day long’. Siege fits perfectly with the medieval warfare theme we have going on. Sacks, sieges, and pillaging, the offensive line gave up a lot.
The tale of the tape was this: the Falcons simply couldn’t block Charles Johnson. On the first sack of the game, Johnson was matched up with Clabo. Johnson gave him a power rush and was driven back. Inevitably, Johnson was going to get to Ryan, were it not for the pressure surrendered by Sam Baker. The Panthers ran a DE/DT stunt (the defensive end shoots in, and the defensive tackle, who in this case was a defensive end lined up in the DT position, takes the responsibility of edge rusher that a DE would normally take. That was confusing, here’s a link describing what I can’t.) and the tackle pushed Sam Baker hard to the outside, turned him around, and was the first person in on the sack. The Falcons surrendered pressure from both sides of the line, which isn’t a good sign.
Other than that play, Baker was very strong the entire game. Tyson Clabo on the other hand, was not. He constantly beaten by Johnson whether it be from edge speed rush, or from bull rushes, or from some combo. Joe Hawley, who filled in for Todd McClure at one point, also surrendered a sack. The point is, more than half the times Ryan dropped back to pass, he was hit, sacked, or pressured.
Not all of the problem is on the offensive line. There are at least two occasions where Matt Ryan simply held onto the ball too long, or should have thrown the ball out of bounds rather than take the hit/sack. So he’s not totally blameless. But given the amount of pressure generated, he is certainly less at fault than the line. And here’s why.
In the offseason, Matt Ryan was criticized by guys who watch a lot of tape like Greg Cosell. He was criticized for being great when the pocket was completely clear and clean, but struggling with accuracy and confidence when the pocket was ‘muddied’, like when there are players around your feet or in your face, or barreling down on you as a free rusher. That was the #1 thing he needed to work on.
Ryan certainly had a fairly clean pocket most of the first three games. And he was awesome. But against the Panthers, the offensive line struggled, the pocket was constantly ‘muddied’ and Ryan always had a defender close to him as he delivered the pass. And you could barely tell any difference. Ryan completely stepped up and delivered strong, accurate passes down the field. He didn’t shy away from contact; he embraced it. He stepped up into pressure to deliver the ball, even knowing he would be hit only seconds after delivering the pass leaving no time for him to defend himself. And Matt Ryan was extremely successful despite the offensive line, not because of it.
Now one thing is certain: whatever the Falcons were doing well on the offensive line in the first three games, they need to re-discover that quickly and get back to protecting Ryan in the pocket. They must do so as a unit, because there are some players who are still looking really sharp. But some teams in the NFL won’t be beatable after giving up 7 sacks, and may hit harder than the Panthers hit Ryan.
The good news: the Atlanta Falcons know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have a quarterback who can lead them to victory no matter what the situation around him is. That being said, Matt Ryan & Co. will be much more successful if the quarterback isn’t getting beaten up every single down.