Perhaps no position in football is more overlooked, or underrated, than the offensive line. The big men up front are responsible for creating lanes for the run game, and giving their quarterback time to make a throw in the passing game. Last year, an offensive line featuring Lamar Holmes, Garrett Reynolds, Peter Konz, Justin Blalock, and Sam Baker (who only played for four games before an injury saw him forfeit his position to Joe Hawlely), did neither of those things. The result, for the Falcons, was a run game which ranked dead last in total yards, and a passing game which saw Matt Ryan get sacked a career high 44 times. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff focused a lot on rebuilding this tumultuous line to give the Falcons a better chance to win the battle in the trenches, and that preparation is going to pay dividends for the Dirty Birds this year.
Aug 1, 2014; Lawrenceville, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons guard Jon Asamoah (75) performs a drill during practice during Falcons Friday Night Lights at Archer High School. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The first step in the offseason rebuild was signing Kansas City Chiefs Right Guard Jon Asamoah, to a five year deal worth $4.5 million per year. Asamoah played an instrumental role in opening up running lanes for pro bowl running back Jamaal Charles last year: Charles rushed for 1287 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns (adding in 693 receiving yards along with 7 receiving touchdowns). Asamoah also brings something else to the table that wasn’t there last year in Atlanta’s line: a mean streak. Falcons owner Arthur Blank stated in an interview, after the season was over, that he was upset when noone on offense came to Matt Ryan’s defense when rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro took a cheap shot on the quarterback after the play was over, in Atlanta’s week 1 match-up against the Saints last season. New offensive line coach Mike Tice has preached toughness for the offensive line; with this message being delivered, along with the addition of a mean player like Jon Asamoah, you can bet that there will be repercussions if any player tries to deliver a late hit to Matt Ryan again this season.
This toughness and aggression is something that was very common in many of Atlanta’s offensive lines during the Matt Ryan era. Veteran center Todd McClure, who was the leader of the line, had a very evident mean streak, especially when it came to protecting his quarterback. Since his retirement prior to last season, there has been noone to really step up and drive the message of toughness into the lineman. The result was a very fragile and soft offensive line last year, that was constantly taken advantage of over the course of the season. The hope is that both lines will play with that toughness and aggression, which has been preached by Mike Tice, head coach Mike Smith, and defensive line coach Bryan Cox, up until the whistle is blown. This aggression has been on full display in training camp (as we’ve seen on “hard knocks”) and was on full display in week three of the preseason, when the offensive line retaliated to a late hit on quarterback Matt Ryan, in a game against the Tennessee Titans.
Aug 23, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons guard Jon Asamoah (75) pulls Atlanta Falcons center Joe Hawley (61) away from Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Zach Brown (55) after a scuffle in the first quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
The Falcons’ offensive line wasn’t always bad: in fact, they’ve been been one of the best units in football in the Matt Ryan era. The line was at its best in 2008 (Ryan’s rookie year): behind a starting lineup of Todd McClure (Center), Harvey Dahl (Right Guard), Tyson Clabo (Right Tackle), Sam Baker (Left Tackle, Todd Weiner also started a little bit in this position), and Justin Blalock (Left Guard). That year, Matt Ryan was sacked just 17 times (which is to this day a career low, and which was the 5th fewest out of any quarterback that season), and running back Michael Turner rushed for 1699 yards (2nd to only Adrian Peterson) and 17 touchdowns (a league high). With the offensive line winning so many games in the trenches and giving Matt Ryan time in the pocket and Michael Turner lanes to run through, the Falcons won 11 games, and earned an unlikely playoff birth. Atlanta fielded the same offensive line a year later, and got similar results: Ryan was sacked just 19 times, and the Falcons achieved their 2nd straight winning season (something they had never accomplished before). However, injuries to Ryan (who missed three games) and Turner (who missed five games) hampered the Falcons’ playoff chances, as they just missed out with a 9-7 record. 2010 marked the third (and final) season where all five of these lineman would line up together in the trenches. That year, they helped Atlanta to a 13-3 season and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs (Ryan was sacked just 23 times).
Although the good results were always there, it’s clear that the offense line had regressed every year since 2008; and that regression continued, as the Falcons started to lose some of their lineman. It was clear that Atlanta wouldn’t be able to financially afford the luxury of keeping all five of these offensive lineman on the team. In the 2011 offseason, Thomas Dimitroff had some decisions to make when the contracts of Harvey Dahl, Justin Blalock, and Tyson Clabo all expired. Despite reports that Atlanta would only be able to afford to bring one of these three players back, Dimitroff managed to re-sign both Blalock and Clabo, while having to let go of Dahl (who had developed a reputation of being one of the league’s toughest and nastiest players).
The line lost some of its toughness with Dahl’s departure, and also suffered a downgrade in talent when players such as Mike Johnson (who went on IR after two games) and Garrett Reynolds had to start at Right Guard. Will Svitek had a good season replacing an injured Sam Baker at Left Tackle for most of the year.Matt Ryan ended up getting sacked 26 times, and the Falcons earned a wildcard spot with a 10-6 record. Ahead of the wildcard game, the New York Giants (Atlanta’s opponent) called out the Falcons’ offensive line as being a “dirty” group. Blalock, McClure, Clabo, and Baker all returned to the fold in 2012, and they were joined by 2nd round pick Peter Konz, who took over at Right Guard. Konz looked shaky all season, and never really seemed to adjust to his position change (he played Center in college, at Wisconsin). Ryan ended up getting sacked 27 times, but the Falcons won 13 games for the 2nd time in three years, and they went on to make it to the NFC Championship game.
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2013 is when the wheels fell off. After Matt Ryan was given a 6 year/$103.75 million contract extension, the Falcons needed to clear some cap space, and they did so at the expense of the offensive line. Tyson Clabo was cut, and Dimitroff refused to re-sign Todd McClure despite the fact that the center was willing to take a pay cut to stay on the team. The contract extension the general manager gave to Sam Baker also contributed to some of these cuts: the former first round pick was awarded a 6 year/$41 million contract after a successful 2012 season, and that lengthy contract ended up backfiring. It backfired not only because of the additional cuts Dimitroff had to make as a way of clearing up cap, but also because Baker hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He’s also been an average player at best throughout his career, with one good season in 2012. One of the main reasons Dimitroff didn’t feel the need to bring the pro bowler McClure back was because he had drafted Peter Konz in the 2nd round to eventually replace him at center. The result of Konz’s position change was that Garrett Reynolds once again took over at Right Guard (where Konz had played the year before), and a preseason injury to Mike Johnson (which placed him on IR) saw recent 3rd round pick Lamar Holmes have to step in at Right Tackle to protect Matt Ryan from the edge rush.
The result was a train wreck. Konz was awful at center, so much so that he lost his starting spot to Joe Hawley near the end of the season, and is now Hawley’s backup going into 2014. Lamar Holmes didn’t fare any better, Stamina issues took their tole as he allowed 10 sacks. Reynolds couldn’t help open up any running lanes at the Guard position, and Sam Baker only saw the field for four (unspectacular) games before going down for the season. The result of many injuries to the team and a detrimental offensive line ended up being a 4-12 record, a running game which ranked last in the league, and a quarterback that was sacked a career high 44 times.
Aug 8, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews (70) prior to the game against the Miami Dolphins at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The page seems destined to turn for the offensive line in 2014. The silver lining to that dreadful four win season for Atlanta was a very high draft pick. With the 6th overall pick, Dimitroff brought in a highly touted Tackle from Texas A&M: Jake Matthews. Matthews was deemed the best pass blocker in the draft, and the most NFL ready player out of all his peers who play in the offensive line. He’s the son of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews, and the cousin of Green Bay Packers pro bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, football runs in his blood.
The coaching staff seemed dead set on starting Matthews’ career at Right Tackle (despite the fact that he played Left Tackle his last year of college), but those plans quickly changed when Sam Baker went down with a season ending injury in week 2 of the preseason. Matthews was immediately moved to Left Tackle, and it seems like Lamar Holmes will get another chance to start at Right Tackle this year. Holmes has looked very good in the preseason and it seems like he’s in better shape this year, this bodes well for Matt Ryan’s chances at staying upright throughout the season. Justin Blalock comes into this season as the lone survivor from that spectacular 2008 line (with Baker injured), and there aren’t many question marks with him, as he’s been a model of consistency and was one of the lone bright spots in the offensive line last year. Joe Hawley had a very good preseason, and the hope is that he’ll be able to serve as an upgrade over Konz, at center. And finally, Jon Asamoah will sure up the interior, and help improve what was a dreadful run game last season.
Jun 18, 2014; Flowery Branch, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons offensive linemen listen to line coach Mike Tice (cap and sun glasses) explain a drill during Minicamp at Falcons Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Many fans didn’t realize how good they had it with the offensive lines that provided secret service like protection for Matt Ryan and the rest of the offense, earlier in the Matt Ryan era. It took an awful season to help them, and even the general manager to a certain extent, realize the importance of putting the right pieces in front of the $100 million quarterback. A young, over-matched, offensive line didn’t get the job done last year. This year Dimitroff went out and made his money as the general manager: he upgraded the positions of Left Tackle and Right Guard, his former 3rd round pick Lamar Holmes seems poised to be much improved at Right Tackle, and he brought in a new offensive line coach in what has become one of the team’s most underrated moves of the offseason. Mike Tice is a proven coach who has instilled an element of toughness in the line. Jon Asamoah, Lamar Holmes, and Joe “Brawley” have been mean this preseason, and the hope is that this will carry over into the regular season.
The players on the offensive line never really get the respect they deserve, for playing such a big role. They’re never as appreciated as the big named running backs or wide receivers. But things have changed in Atlanta: from now on, the players on the line will be respected and appreciated more than ever by the Falcons faithful, and if they can give Ryan time in the pocket to get the ball to his pro bowl wide receivers, then the sky will be the limit for the Atlanta Falcons.