Improved Line Play
The football purist will agree that the game is won in the trenches. A big reason for the 2016 Falcons success has been the improved play of both the offensive and defensive lines.
We’ll start first with the offensive line. The Falcons addressed the line’s biggest weakness by going out and acquiring three time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. Through five weeks, Mack is in the running for best free agent signing of the entire 2016 offseason.
The former Cleveland Brown has been a major upgrade over last year’s starter Mike Person, who ranked as PFF’s 27th ranked center. Mack has uplifted the play of the interior linemen, once considered a sore spot, and assumed the protection calling duties. The result: a passing offense that ranks first in nearly every statistical category and a rushing attack that sits at seventh in yards per game.
The work the offensive line has done in the run game is even more impressive when you consider this stat. Per Zoltan Buday, the Falcons are second in the league in average yards before contact at 2.42, meaning the Atlanta linemen are winning their battle more often than not.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line has been on an upward swing over the last couple of weeks. Against Cam Newton and the Panthers, the Falcons front four harassed the reigning MVP all day, connecting on eight quarterback hits. The pass rush followed that up with a six sack performance last week against the Denver Broncos.
And the thing is, the Falcons haven’t changed their personnel all that much from last year. Outside of depth signings Derrick Shelby and Dwight Freeney, this is the same cast of characters that registered a putrid 19 total sacks in 2015.
The difference in play has mainly been two fold. The Falcons got back to stopping the run the last two weeks, much like they did in the first half of last season. Atlanta held the Panthers and Broncos to 49 and 84 rushing yards, respectively, in their last two games.
Secondly, the defensive line has started to work more in unison in terms of planning out their pass rush. No player has that been more apparent from than 2015 first round pick, Vic Beasley.
Beasley terrorized Broncos right tackle Ty Sambrailo for four sacks, two of which resulted in forced fumbles of the quarterback. The former 8th overall pick got back to what made him a highly coveted prospect out of college, his speed.
Sambrailo was no match for Beasley’s first step quickness. And when he wasn’t beating his man around the corner, Vic was forcing the Broncos right tackle to false start. The illustration below from Blogging Dirty’s own Scott Carasik demonstrates just how fast Beasley was in last Sunday’s game.
And before you say rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch held onto the ball too long, Lynch actually did the opposite. Per Cecil Lammey, the Broncos quarterback got rid of the ball at the 7th fastest clip in week 5.
Last week’s outburst by the Falcons pass rush was a case of Atlanta simply beating their man. If they can continue to do that like they have the last two weeks, the 2016 Falcons become a complete football team.