Dissection of dead Falcons season includes offensive line

Nov 18, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is sacked by Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence during the second quarter in a NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Nov 18, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is sacked by Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence during the second quarter in a NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

While ruminating on the latest Falcons loss, the one that knocked them from serious playoff contention, two quotes stood out for me.

One came from NBC analyst Rodney Harrison. He was talking about the next Falcons opponents, the Saints, after they secured their second blowout victory in as many weeks.

“This offensive line is the best in football,” Harrison said.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett provided the other illuminating comment. He was explaining how his team held the Falcons to one touchdown in its 22-19 win at the Benz Dome on Sunday.

“Just a real tribute to the guys up front,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of healthy guys. Four defensive linemen were out in the game. We brought one off of the practice squad. We pride ourselves on trying to play with eight guys, have a rotation so we can keep their snaps down. We couldn’t do that today.”

Yet the Cowboys handled the Falcons at the line of scrimmage. Dallas has a good defense but no way should its short-handed group make it that hard for the Falcons to score. Cleveland's short-handed defense did the same thing to the Falcons the week before.

The Saints and Falcons are headed in different directions. Considering the context of their respective seasons, I think the play of their respective offensive lines is near the top of reasons for the divergence.

To which you rightly respond: What about defense? Sure, but it’s not as if the Saints are great in that area. There’s a smaller gap between their defense and an average unit than the one between their defense and the Falcons. That’s not the same as saying the Saints play good defense.

The Saints won for a spell because they scored a lot of points to overcome bad defense. Now their defense is better, the offense continues to roll, and the Saints are looking Super. The Falcons have improved defensively over the past month — that unit kept them in the game against Dallas — but their offense has regressed.

And a big reason for that is their offensive line play. The Falcons can’t rely on their line to protect the quarterback or grind out yards running the ball. The Saints can count on their line to do both.

As a result, their offense is significantly more effective than the Falcons’ with a collection of skill players that maybe is only a bit better. The numbers confirm what the eyes can see about the line play for both teams.

Before this week's games, the Saints ranked No. 2 in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate allowed (down, distance and opponent are considered). The Falcons ranked 18th.

The Saints ranked No. 6 in the percentage of successful “power” runs before this week (third or fourth down with two yards or less to go that result in a first down, or any down with less than two yards for a TD). The Falcons ranked No. 18.

The Saints ranked No. 1 in the NFL in preventing backs from being tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Falcons ranked No. 31.

You get the picture.

The Falcons offensive line probably had its best performance of the season three weeks ago at Washington. It was a passing moment. Dallas gave the Falcons problems up front, same as Cleveland.

The offensive line play has declined for the Falcons after it was good over the past two seasons. It’s a potentially worrisome development for the Falcons because the group is supposed to be set.

The Falcons signed center Alex Mack to a big free-agent deal in 2016. They signed right tackle Ryan Schraeder to a five-year extension that same year (he’s been noticeably worse this season). The Falcons re-upped left tackle Jake Matthews over the summer (he’s been good, but he’s paid great).

The Falcons signed guard Brandon Fusco to a modest deal in March and he suffered a season-ending injury three games back. Still, Fusco was out there when the Falcons struggled to score in losses to the Eagles and Steelers. Combined tally for the Falcons in those games: 10 sacks allowed, 4.6 yards gained per play and 29 points scored with just three TDs.

Missing both Fusco and guard Andy Levitre (out since Week 3) put pressure on the depth at a position group where few teams have much of it. Maybe it will make all the difference when they return to play alongside Mack, Schraeder and Matthews. Perhaps the run game will be reinvigorated when Devonta Freeman is healthy--the Falcons seem to have abandoned their bread-and-butter stretch runs without him, though that also might have something to do with the line play.

The Falcons hope health is the only issue because they don’t have any offensive linemen in the pipeline. They used three picks on linemen in the past four drafts, including just one earlier than sixth round.

That player was guard Sean Harlow, a fourth-round pick in 2017. The Falcons released Harlow before the season and have kept him on the practice squad as injuries piled up. The Falcons signed Fusco after Wes Schweitzer, their sixth-round pick in 2016, wasn’t up to snuff as a starter in 2017.

You can’t fault the Falcons for eschewing linemen in recent drafts. The group was good in 2016 and ‘17 and they added Fusco for this season. The line might still be good if the Falcons are right about their core players, but they are in trouble if they miscalculated and this season is the start of the group’s decline.

The Falcons might have made something out of this star-crossed season if their offense didn’t fall off at the same time their defense got better.  They couldn’t keep up the scoring because, unlike the Saints, their offensive line play didn’t allow it.

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