The offensive line at work during minicamp | June 20, 2012 | PHOTO: Matt Lange, AtlantaFalcons.com
Simply put, games are won and lost in the trenches.
There were more than a few times poor offensive line play cost the Falcons. Overtime against the Saints and the season opener in Chicago, where five sacks were allowed, are two cases in point. The Falcons’ struggles on the offensive line were duly noted last year and deservedly so.
“This group up front has taken a lot of heat when things haven’t gone good and when things do go good, you don’t hear much about us. So, you take it in stride,” said veteran center Todd McClure. “We try not to listen too much to what’s going on outside and what people are saying. Every time we step on the field, we want to do our best.”
With the start of a new season right around the corner, the offensive line has the chance to start anew. At the beginning of the offseason, it was announced there would be a competition for all positions on the line during Organized Team Activities, minicamp and training camp.
There is arguably no position more important on the line than the left tackle, which last season was a weakness for the Falcons. Not only will it be the left tackle’s job to protect Matt Ryan‘s blind side, it will also be his job to help in the run game.
In 2011, Atlanta only rushed the ball toward the left tackle 59 times for an average of 2.88 yards per carry; that ranked 31st in the National Football League. Better play from the left tackle position is key to the Falcons’ success.
“Playing left tackle in this league is not an easy job,” said head coach Mike Smith. “The majority of the time, they’re facing the top pass rushers. Most right defensive ends are the guys that have the skill set to rush the passer.”
It wasn’t too long ago that the offensive line was one of the best in the league. But after losing Harvey Dahl in free agency a season ago, the line regressed. The line has more than enough potential to turn things back around.
“I know one thing that I was really impressed with more than anything, is they’re highly intelligent and I think that’s super, super important,” said new offensive line coach, Pat Hill. “That’s something that’s hard to train. They’ve got a great understanding of the game.”
It’s clear that improvements need to be made, but the improvements may not need to be all that drastic. “I like some of the subtle changes that we’ve seen,” said Smith. “I like the competition that we’ve created on the offensive line, it’s going to be a very competitive rest of this offseason and training camp. I think competition is a very good thing.”
The Falcons shouldn’t have to look too far for ideas on how to improve things. It could be as simple as running the ball towards the right tackle instead of the left, or bolstering the left side to mirror the success on the right.
Atlanta rushed the ball for an average of 5.27 yards per carry when running toward the right tackle last season. That was good enough for ninth in the NFL.
Either way, it is essential for the Falcons to figure out the perfect combination of player, or players, to protect Ryan and block well enough for the likes of Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling to get to the second and third levels of the defense.
“We’re going to start mixing and matching our offensive line.” said Smith. “We have to have guys crossed trained. So, you’re going to see we’re going to work guys at different positions. We have a lot of flexibility right now with our offensive line.”