Every week I take a look at the Falcons offensive line and how well or poorly they played. Against the Saints, the Falcons offensive line did a great job of pass protection, surrendering only one sack, and 5 quarterback hits. You’d like to see no sacks or hits on your quarterback altogether, but that’s not realistic. I’ll get to the pass blocking soon, but the biggest challenge the Falcons o-line faced was in run blocking.
From the Falcons very first offensive play from scrimmage, you could see that the Falcons weren’t doing a great job of run blocking. Out of a singleback formation, the Falcons ran the ball right up the middle with Turner. New Orleans smelled it out very well (I guess it isn’t very difficult to predict a Michael Turner run up the middle) and blitzed two linebackers up the A-gap (both sides of center Todd McClure). The rest of the line blocked their man very well, as the defensive line was effectively negated. But the double A-gap blitz puts McClure in a one blocker on two defenders situation, one he can’t possibly win. McClure saw that and had trouble deciding which defender to block, and as a result didn’t really block much of anyone. It amounted in an easy stuff of Michael Turner for a three-yard loss. Now the Falcons were able to overcome that negative play, and scored a touchdown on that drive. But it highlights that execution by the offensive line wasn’t the main reason run blocking struggled– play-calling was to blame as well.
Same drive, but from the one-yard line, the Falcons had just connected on a 49-yard pass play from Matt Ryan to Roddy White. Atlanta calls a power play off the left tackle, have jumbo personnel, and bring tight end Michael Palmer in motion. The offensive line, with the exception of Sam Baker, gets a great surge forward and opens a big running lane. The problem is that with such a large number of offensive players all bunched up in the middle of the field means that Saints defenders are all bunched up as well, so the fullback in motion and tight end have to do a good job of blocking. They make good contact on the defenders they are trying to block, but get stood up immediately. That always devolves into getting pushed back, and by the time Turner reaches the line of scrimmage, he is being swarmed with defenders. There’s nowhere to go, and the play goes for no gain. On that play the o-line’s blocking was good (could have been better), and even though the play was obvious to everyone, the play-call was solid. But blocking by the fullback and tight end was poor.
I’ll skip ahead to the infamous play where on 3rd & 1 from the New Orleans 2-yard line, where Turner was stopped for a 1-yard loss. To my eyes it looks like exactly the same play that the Falcons tried to run on their first offensive possession from the New Orleans 1. Falcons run it again, but this time the Saints were even less fooled than before. The entire left side of the offensive line either missed a block, fell down off their block, or something else bad happened. No hole opened for Turner to run through, and yet again the fullback/pulling tight end/pulling guard blocks just didn’t happen. So the Falcons lost a yard rather than gaining one. You could say that it was a bad play-call, as it had been used before, but I wouldn’t. It wasn’t the fault singularly on the tight ends and fullback blocking. The offensive line was the culprit there.
There are other plays where the running game wasn’t allowed to do a whole lot where the culprit wasn’t blocking, wasn’t play-calling, but it was a lack of play by Michael Turner. Turner clearly wasn’t even close to the entire problem, but he was certainly part of it. Turner is clearly lacking a great deal of speed that he once had. He once was able to power through contact, find a little gap and get the necessary yard or two. Now, he is too slow, so by the time he hits that hole, it has closed and he is tackled for no gain or a loss. And he isn’t running with much power, as he seems to consistently get tackled by initial contact. It’s just a perfect storm of futility for a running back. Shifty backs can be successful, power backs can be successful. If you have both, that’s best. If you have neither, which is where Turner is at this point, it’s difficult to be successful regardless of how your line and backs/tight ends are blocking. And with the Falcons run blocking being suspect, it makes the ‘perfect storm’ or running futility even worse.
All of this isn’t to say that the pass blocking was perfect, because it wasn’t. But it sure was a whole lot better. I’ll look at one play that really highlights that your quarterback doesn’t have to get hit or sacked to be affected by the pressure.
4th & 1 from the New Orleans 1. It’s late in the game, the Falcons have to get a touchdown, a field goal isn’t going to cut it. Matt Ryan takes a three step drop out of a shotgun set, and is going to target Roddy White on a in-route on the back of the endzone. Ryan doesn’t get hit or sacked on the play. However, he is getting pressure from both the right and left side of the offensive line before he even hits the third step in his drop. He never even gets full depth on his drop before he has to get rid of it. But due to the pressure, he has to throw the ball while dropping backwards. He isn’t able to get the necessary zip on the pass, and that allows the Saints corner to make a play and deflect the pass. If he had seen fit to step forward, there would have been a huge pocket, but also the distinct chance that he gets sacked or has the ball stripped. He does the only thing he can do, and due to the pressure given up by Baker and Clabo, things don’t really work out. For a pair of tackles who had done a good job of protecting Ryan in the pocket most of the day, they picked the worst time to give up instantaneous pressure on Ryan. Jason Snelling picks up a blitzer, but it was the pressure given up by the line in that one crucial situation that gives us a poor impression of what the line did in totality on the day. We also have to keep in mind that it was as obvious a passing situation as could possibly be, so the Saints could really pin their ears back and get after the quarterback, Matt Ryan in this case.
It’s disturbing that the run game is going as poorly as it is. It gives balance to an offense. Balance isn’t simply calling a good mixture of run and pass plays; it’s being successful on those plays when you run them. The pass blocking by our line is pretty darn solid without the benefit of a run game. Few things make a passing game more effective than a solid run game. It allows you to keep the defense off balance when you call regular passing plays, and especially when you call play-action passes. Without a run game, defenses are able to tee-off on offensive lines and opposing quarterbacks, and it’s nearly impossible to play-action without it. For the sake of the passing game, the run game needs to come together.
And how can you make the run game come together? First, the offensive line needs to blow defenders off the line. They can’t just hold them up, they need to throw them backwards. Secondly, tight ends, fullbacks, additional linemen, they all need to do their job and open holes in the run game. The playcaller (and this includes Matt Ryan, as he needs to check the Falcons out of run plays that will not be successful) has to call the right plays at the right time. And the final element is the running back has to have good field vision and good burst to see the hole when it is open, and to be able to hit it when he sees it. All of this works in a perfect symphony, and when one part fails, things go awry. Every element of this went bad at one time or another for the Falcons in New Orleans, and if they are to be successful not only this season but in the playoffs, it’s something the Falcons are absolutely going to have to fix.