It’s long overdue for me to do my weekly review of the Atlanta Falcons offensive line. This time, I’m going to be breaking down the o-line performance by the Falcons in their victory over the New Orleans Saints.
First, I have to say what a great job the Falcons did running the ball and run blocking, especially on the first drive. They really got the ball moving forward early on the first possession of the game, and that early score was huge as it put pressure on a struggling Saints team. In the grand scheme of things, that’s certainly what was important, an the Falcons did very well.
Now, zoning in on some of the individual plays and players in the plays, you would see certain victories and failures. The first that I’d like to point out is the pressure by defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis that was given up by rookie guard Peter Konz on Matt Ryan on the very first play of the game. If you recall the play, the ball was tipped slightly, and ended up off course for the intended receiver, Tony Gonzalez. He eventually made the catch, but it could have easily become a pick-six, as safety Malcolm Jenkins was draped all over Gonzalez. The pressure given up by Konz allowed the tip, which very nearly became a turnover. Giving the ball to a dangerous team in the red-zone is never a good thing.
It’s very interesting how things work out. In football, like baseball, it seems like the ball will always get hit to you right after you make a bad play, or your number will be called to make a critical block in the run game. That is precisely what happened with Konz on the very next play. He was asked to make that critical block on the player who had just beaten him, and he did so with authority. Konz made such a great block, it opened a huge hole. Only a linebacker was there to make the play, and the fullback Mike Cox picked up the ‘backer. It sprung Michael Turner on a 35-yard run– a crucial play on the early scoring drive.
Scheme has a major effect on how a team blocks. On one particular play, the Falcons brought in Mike Johnson, an offensive lineman, to play the tight end spot opposite Tony Gonzalez. Conventional wisdom would say that the Falcons had every intention of running the ball to the right side behind the combo of Tyson Clabo and Mike Johnson; the Saints defensive alignment before the snap showed that they fully expected a run to the strong side of the formation. But offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did a good job of play calling, and called a good run to the left side with Jacquizz Rodgers. Sam Baker made a good block, and Justin Blalock helped Todd McClure double team a defensive linemen, before McClure went up to block a linebacker. Great play for Rodgers, a big gain.
One thing that people have to realize when watching a football game is just because your quarterback gets hit, that doesn’t always mean that someone missed an assignment or that somebody didn’t do their job. The best example of this was a successful pass for the Falcons where Matt Ryan ended up getting hit at the end of the play. It wasn’t a big hit, luckily. New Orleans tried to bring an overload blitz to the right side of the Falcons line (Clabo’s side). The line surged forward and picked up the defensive line, and running back Jacquizz Rodgers did a great, great job picking up one of the two blitzers. But the inside blitzer was left as a free runner. This was by design. The Falcons knew that they weren’t going to be able to pick up every defender the Saints were bringing in pressure, so it is the responsibility of Ryan to understand there is a blitzer coming at him, untouched, and that he must get rid of the pass before the pressure gets to him. He did so, very successfully, and delivered an on-target and in-time pass to his receiver. Great job by the offensive line and backs to successfully block their assignments, and good job by Ryan of understanding what he had to do, and properly executing the play.
I noticed something interesting. It seemed like Ryan and his receivers were out of sync a lot. Many times, the New Orleans secondary wasn’t even the reason for the incomplete passes on third downs. Only a couple of times did defensive backs make good plays on the ball. Far too often, what looked to me like a short-hop throw from Ryan to his receivers was a ball slightly tipped by one of the Saints defensive linemen. It’s hard for an offensive lineman to block a defender AND keep that player’s hands down. Tipped passes are a result of d-linemen watching the eyes of the quarterback, realizing exactly where the QB is trying to throw the pass. It’s Ryan’s responsibility to look off the safety to open up throws down the field, but it also helps to shift your eyes to not telegraph your throws. At least none of those tipped passes ended up intercepted.
One final note. The one sack that Matt Ryan took wasn’t particularly poor offensive line play, nor was it particularly poor play on the several plays where Ryan was hit or forced to throw the ball out of bounds. Many times, poor play the by line makes those things happen. However against the Saints, it was a severe lack of separation by the receivers. Let me explain. A quarterback can (should) only throw to a receiver who is either open, or is the only player who can make the catch. Too many times, the Saints played outside technique, and didn’t allow the Falcons receivers to get outside of them or behind them. Generally, if Ryan was hit, or forced to move a lot in the pocket, it was because he had to hold onto the ball. There just wasn’t anywhere for him to throw the ball without risking a turnover. Even though there was very solid protection by the line, if the receivers can’t get open, it doesn’t really matter how good the blocking is. Eventually they are going to at least force the quarterback to move, or worse, hit him.
These are just some of my thoughts on the game. The most important thing is the Falcons got a victory. But there are clearly some things that the Falcons o-line, as well as other offensive position groups, must do better. However, a good win nonetheless.