Every football season possesses a natural ebb and flow. The eventual outcome of a sports team determines which aspect fans will remember more, the positives or the negatives. At least that is true in most cases for the historically inconsistent Atlanta Falcons.
The 2012 Atlanta Falcons are largely remembered for falling just short of a Super Bowl appearance during a final drive. They were a great team who struggled to finish games where they had attained solid leads. This odd trait almost came back to bite them against the Seattle Seahawks and it fatally chomped them against the San Francisco 49ers.
The 2013 Atlanta Falcons are universally remembered for failing to block anyone anywhere anytime. They also failed to provide any sort of consistent pass rush. And their tackling was suspect. Suffice to say that the 2013 Atlanta Falcons were not a single drive away from the Super Bowl.
Over the NFL offseason, the longest one in major sports, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff had plenty of time to wonder what went wrong with his organization. To his credit, he was self-abusive to the point of being a simultaneous sadist/masochist in evaluating the team’s mistakes. He did learn from them, and he did make an honest effort to fix what was broken. The team enhanced both lines, a long overdue rebalancing of our salary cap and draft pick capital, to develop a more physically capable team.
Best of all, Dimitroff finally resisted the temptation to waste draft pick value by staying where we were in the draft to select a player who fit our biggest need. Dimitroff has long been an ardent believer in need-based drafting rather than the historically more effective best player available philosophy. The problem has been that he has filled his needs by ceding further picks, later ones that could have filled the very needs in question. With a more than full complement of nine new prospects combined with several free agent additions, this team is not your 2013 Atlanta Falcons. Change was needed, and change has been made.
The focus of today’s conversation is the most important change, one predicated by the proverbial series of unfortunate events. Already this preseason, the Falcons have experienced a tumultuous series of events. Veteran players despise the idea of practicing with a team all week then playing against said opponent in a preseason game. The reasons are obvious. After several days of practice, an opponent knows not only your tendencies as a player but also your team’s plays and schemes. Atlanta chose to scrimmage against Houston anyway, presumably to build confidence among the offensive line players by competing them against arguably the most talented defensive end duo in the NFL.
The game represented a worst case scenario result in most conceivable ways. The Falcons were badly whipped by a football team considered mediocre at best by most analysts and football metrics simulators. Even worse, everyone knows by now that Sam Baker’s knee was elevated several inches from his intended location, shredding his patella in the process.
Baker had performed extremely well in camp and especially the first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins. He was graded with a +2.0 by Pro Football Focus, my preferred site for player evaluations. Any positive score for a player means that they answered the call above and beyond their expected duties. In Baker’s case, a +2.0 is exceptional. The best offensive tackle in football last season, Trent Williams, averaged +2.15 per game for the season last year.
Obviously, Baker played at a high level in week one and in combination with vaunted first round draft pick Jake Matthews, he was poised to provide quarterback Matt Ryan the protection that he had sorely lacked in 2013. Dimitroff’s best laid plans have already fallen asunder. I will now attempt to find the silver lining in this misfortune.
In the wake of the announcement that Baker was lost for the season and presumably done as an Atlanta Falcon, team management did the expected. They named Matthews the new starter at Left Tackle. That had been assumed as an eventuality since the team had drafted the son of Hall of Fame tackle Bruce Matthews. The problem is that after playing last season as the blind side protector for Johnny Manziel, Matthews had spent the body of 2014 training camp prepping to play Right Tackle. And no matter what anybody tries to tell you about the two positions, the switch is not easy.
The intent for a right tackle is to attain leverage against anchoring defensive ends paid to stop the run. That explains the lexicon of the position, the strong side defensive end. The weak side is everything that happens where the quarterback does not have eyes, the blind side as it were. Defensive ends on that side are blindingly fast and agile, providing a type of quick twitch burst. Matthews is now required to flip the switch from defending against slower, more powerful players to preventing lethally quick would-be assailants from dropping Matt Ryan.
If we learned anything productive from 2013, it was that Matt Ryan can take a hit. The problem is that when he does so, he behaves like any other quarterback in the NFL. His performance declines. Because of this simplistic but seminal issue, Jake Matthews has suddenly become the most important player on the Atlanta roster. And that is an alarming statement.
Chip Kelly recently described the madness of the NFL Draft by noting that no other business in the world expects the newest employees to save the company. Professional sports behave differently. For better and for worse, Jake Matthews is predestined to be Atlanta’s savior in 2014. If he fails in that regard, we are unlikely to succeed as a team.
How has Matthews done thus far? He has behaved similarly to the team itself. Matthews has been up and down depending on the opponent. During the team’s first game against Miami, Matthews was in a word horrific. No, I am not down on the guy and looking for him to fail, either. To the contrary, I was an ardent supporter of the Falcons drafting an offensive tackle in the first round and Matthews was the player who made the most sense. He had the college experience that Greg Robinson lacked, a huge deal to Dimitroff, and he did not have the character issues that Taylor Lewan possessed, a huge deal for team owner Arthur Blank. Matthews has been my guy for a while now, but I still have to be honest about his play.
Against Miami, Matthews earned a dismal grade of -5.5 according to Pro Football Focus. How terrible is that grade? Consider that public enemy number one for Falcons fans in 2013 was Lamar Holmes, the human turnstile. Holmes invited so many people into the backfield last year that you may have believed he was tailgating. He had an overall season grade of -38.2 at Pro Football Focus, the second worst score in the entire league. Yes, every tackle in the NFL save for Bradley Sowell of Arizona could have rightfully told Lamar Holmes that he sucked. Despite that level of consistent woefulness, Holmes only had one game in 2013 where he graded lower than -5.5. As bad as Holmes was last year, Jakes Matthews’ first game as a professional athlete was on that level.
Thankfully, Matthews stepped up the following week against Houston. While other Falcons positional groups struggled, the offensive line played quite well overall. Center Joe Hawley, Matthews and Holmes combined for a +7.1, largely dominating the line of scrimmage. Matthews was +1.9 on an individual basis, demonstrating exactly the type of week-to-week resiliency that the team expected from the #6 overall pick in the draft. After suffering two penalties the first week, one of which negated a dazzling touchdown run by Antone Smith, Matthews was not flagged for anything in the game. Simply stated, he demonstrated tremendous learning curve from his first to second game as a pro.
On Saturday, Jake Matthews was back to square one again. After practicing at Left Tackle for the body of the week, Matthews started what Falcons fans hope will be the first of 200 games at the position. Personally, I am saving a spot in the Falcons Ring of Honor for him already, but that doesn’t change the fact that Matthews struggled mightily again against the Tennessee Titans. For the second time this preseason, he was flagged for holding. And it was not a ticky-tack foul. Matthews was in prime wedgie position on the defender, a move that refs will always notice. He also had a false start on a play where he seemed to realize immediately that he had jumped too soon.
Combined with an illegal use of hands call against Miami, Matthews now has committed four penalties after three games. That is an unacceptable total yet also an understandable one. A lot has been thrown at Matthews already, and he has yet to play a down that counts in the NFL. Long term, the way that he has been thrown into the fire will accelerate his development, assuming it doesn’t break him. In the short term, I expect this sort of turbulence with Matthews. Even the greatest offensive tackle prospects would falter a bit in the face of preseason position switch.
Whenever you grow frustrated with his play and are inclined to vent that he is a bust, remember exactly what has transpired here. Baker got injured with two games left in the preseason. Matthews was thrust into a new role after spending months training for a different position. He will now square off against the most dangerous defensive players in the NFL. The fact that he will hold his own from day one reflects what a special talent this kid is. Savor him more often than you lament him.