Through the first three weeks of the season, the Falcons offensive line was very good. They protected Matt Ryan well, and when he decided to be aggressive and take shots down the field, he was afforded time to do that effectively. We saw unbelievable offensive production through the first three weeks.
Something snapped in week 4 against the Panthers. That was a game where the Falcons gave up 7 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. That’s really bad. They were slightly better against Washington last week, but they were absolutely abysmal yesterday against Oakland.
Against an Oakland defense that is really undermanned and generally regarded as one of the worst defenses in the league, the Falcons surrendered 1 sack. Yes, they only gave up the one sack, but the more important number is quarterback hits. A multitude of things can happen when the quarterback is hit. Until yesterday, Ryan had gotten the ball out of bounds, or had found an open receiver. Yesterday, those hits didn’t end in sacks, they ended in a lot of interceptions.
Now in defense of the offensive line, the first interception Ryan threw was Ryan’s fault, nobody else’s. Bad throw. But the other two throws were off target and ended up being fluttering passes because Matt was absolutely getting smashed in the pocket. Credit Ryan for standing up while getting hit as hard as he did. Unfortunately, he got hit right before delivering the throw, not right after. And that made all the difference in the world.
Watching the film of the second interception, it was going to be a contested throw no matter what, but with how Ryan has been playing up to this point and the talent that Julio Jones has, there’s a great chance it’s caught for a touchdown. But the offensive line on Ryan’s blindside let him down. The protection was unusual because it was a play-action, but I’ll do my best to explain what happened. The entire offensive line blocks their man to the right in a effort to fake the run. Everyone took their man to the right, including left tackle Sam Baker, who got a double team on the left defensive tackle along with Justin Blalock. That left the left defensive end, Matt Shaughnessy, unblocked for a moment until right guard Garrett Reynolds pulled to the left and picked him up. He blocked him for a second, but when Ryan stepped up in the pocket, it gave Shaughnessy a great opportunity to get a hand on Ryan and throw him off while trying to deliver the pass. That was the most important factor to why the pass was in a spot where the defender could make a play on the ball, something Ryan rarely does. The interception goes on Ryan’s stat line, but it was the offensive line’s fault. It’s a mismatch between Reynolds and the defensive end, but I do expect Reynolds to do a better job than that.
The third and final interception was blatant that Ryan got crushed. The Falcons sent four receivers out on routes, and the Raiders decided to blitz six people, their four down lineman and two linebackers right up the middle. To say the Falcons were outmanned and caught off guard would be an understatement. Justin Blalock went to the right to help block the defensive tackles, leaving Jacquizz Rodgers as the only guy to block two Raider linebackers. Rodgers did a great job of completely blocking one and getting a piece of another, but the one guy he slightly hit got off a clean hit on Ryan. The ball went flying, and it was an easy interception for the Raiders defense. No man can block two players, and certainly not a running back. The protection was poor because the Falcons had no idea that Oakland was going to blitz those two linebackers based on the pre-snap read. Somehow, the Falcons have got to have at least Blalock blocking on that play, because it had disaster written all over it.
There were other throws where Ryan got hit, resulting in different outcomes, whether they be incompletions or even completed passes. But there is no denying that Ryan getting hit adversely affected the Falcons offense and the quarterback in particular. The offensive line as a whole has got to get better with setting their protections, and picking up the blitz when it comes.
On the other hand, credit the Oakland Raiders who were coming right off of the bye week and whose defense came ready to play and get after the quarterback. Whatever they did in the bye really prepared them well to get to Ryan and make things messy for him and the Falcons. The only thing we can be sure of is that Oakland got tremendous pressure with less pass-rushing talent than other teams the Falcons have and will face. That’s a scary thought, but Atlanta is now on a bye and needs to get some things ironed out. Offensive line coach Pat Hill is going to have his work cut out for him the next two weeks.