Up, down. High, low. Those have been the grades you would give to the performance of the Atlanta Falcons offensive line through the 2012 season. The first three weeks were very good, but since then they have been either very good, or sub-par. Against the Dallas Cowboys, the offensive line was good more often than it was bad, but when that unit decided to perform poorly, it was really obvious.
The Falcons only gave up three sacks on the day. One was registered by linebacker Victor Butler, another was registered by DeMarcus Ware, and the third was split between Ware and lineman Josh Brent. I’ll look at these in chronological order.
The first was a free shot by Ware on Matt Ryan. Dallas showed a five man front, and they must have believed they have the protection set to pick up the blitz. They felt certain that CB Morris Claiborne was going to blitz off the same edge Ware was lined up on, and that Ware was going to drop into coverage. The running back was going to chip Claiborne, which would be a Falcons victory. Baker went one on one with a defensive end, and the other four Falcons offensive linemen double teamed Dallas’ defensive tackle and other defensive end. Everyone was accounted for, assuming Ware dropped into coverage. Unfortunately, Claiborne dropped into coverage, and Ware came on the pass rush. Not a single person even attempted to block Ware, and he crushed Matt Ryan on a blind-side sack that created a fumble. Luckily the Falcons recovered, but you can’t just leave Ware unblocked. Hindsight is 20/20, but if you have to pick a player to block or leave unblocked, I’d block Ware and take my chances with Morris Claiborne blitzing off the edge. Not the best job of setting the protection to keep your quarterback upright. It’s lucky Ryan wasn’t injured on the play.
The second sack was a coverage sack, and Ware & Josh Brent ended up making the play. Ryan was trying to throw a short pass, and he needed to get the ball out as soon as he hit the fifth step in his drop. He had another beat to throw the ball before the pocket began collapsing. He stepped up, kept looking up the field, but at that point nobody was open, and there really wasn’t any way he could escape the speed of DeMarcus ware. Good initial rush off the snap by the defensive line, and then great coverage forced Ryan to take the sack.
The most costly and crucial sack of the game came with 9 minutes to play in the 4th quarter. The Falcons had taken the ball from their own 20 to the Dallas 18 in a little over three minutes, and it seemed like the Falcons were surely going to get the key touchdown to really put the game on ice. However, on 1st & 10 from the Dallas 18, Ryan was sacked for a 9 yard loss, a really huge sack in the red-zone late in the game. Once again, the Cowboys brought four men to pressure Ryan, and the fourth was linebacker Victor Butler off the left side. This time there was little doubt what was coming, but the Falcons couldn’t execute a block. Sam Bakers won a one-on-one against one of Dallas’ 3-4 defensive ends, and the Falcons executed double teams against the nose tackle and other defensive end. Butler was left coming off the left edge, and the Falcons had FB Lousaka Polite and RB Michael Turner trying to block Butler. It’s two against one, and in an ideal situation they’d be able to get a double team and at least make Butler take a different route and take more time. While Polite got a chip in, Turner was caught to the inside and was unable to get a hand on Butler, who easily got to Ryan for the sack. It took them out of the red-zone, and ultimately forced them to kick a field goal, something that could have cost them the game.
Now those weren’t the only hits in the passing game that the Falcons offensive line gave up. They allowed Ryan to get hit on several other occasions, but they didn’t result in a sack as he was able to get the pass off. Still, quarterback hits are a big time no no, and the less we see Matt getting clobbered in the pocket, the better.
The other area where the Falcons line really needs to improve is in run blocking. On the Falcons second possession of the game, they got the ball to the Dallas 18 yard line, and were able to get into a 2nd & 2. There’s no reason to not convert that in the red-zone. But they Falcons ran with Michael Turner for no gain, and then with Jacquizz Rodgers for a loss of one yard. That was the prime example of a situation where a conversion is necessary. Getting into the endzone is so crucial, and it would have been great for the Falcons to respond to the early field goal by Dallas with a touchdown. But the inability to convert on two consecutive short yardage situations is a major problem.
The contest against Dallas wasn’t the first time the Falcons have struggles in short yardage situations. The first time I noticed it was the very beginning of Week 2 against the Broncos when it took the Falcons three chances to get the ball one yard into the endzone. And it’s been a consistent struggle.
It may actually be the #1 most important thing for the Falcons to improve. It wasn’t like the Falcons offensive line was giving up sacks because they were getting beaten; they were mental errors, poor job of setting protections in the passing game. It’s easily fixable. But it’s not as positive when you can’t convert really short situations. The Falcons and o-line coach Pat Hill will work on it in the week ahead.