Cover 9@9: Falcons’ offensive line on pace for 40 sacks

120521 Atlanta: Buccaneers Vita Vea sacks Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during the second quarter for a loss in a NFL football game on Sunday, Dec 5, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

caption arrowCaption
120521 Atlanta: Buccaneers Vita Vea sacks Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during the second quarter for a loss in a NFL football game on Sunday, Dec 5, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

(Here’s our weekly nine items at 9 a.m. Wednesday on the Atlanta Falcons, otherwise known as the Cover 9@9 blog!)

1. The no-spin zone: Falcons coach Arthur Smith did a great job of disguising his deficient offensive line for most of the season.

The Falcons were getting the ball out quickly, which hid their pass-blocking problems. Teams have studied the Falcons and are taking away some of Matt Ryan’s quick routes, and he’s holding the ball longer.

After the offensive line gave up five sacks and 11 quarterback hits against the Buccaneers on Sunday, the unit is on pace for its fourth consecutive season of allowing 40 sacks or more.

The Falcons have been trying to fix the offensive line about as long as they been looking for pass-rush help. They gave up 42 sacks in 2018, 48 in 2019, 41 in 2020.

In addition to the 26 sacks, Ryan has been hit 58 more times and hurried on 27 other passes.

His times pressured (111) per drop-back (446) ratio is 24.8%. Last season, it was 24.3%. It was 21.4% in 2018 and 23.9% in 2018.

The Falcons scraped their rotating center plan at halftime against the Buccaneers’ stout defensive front.

“We’ll just see what the game plan, how it goes,” Smith said. “Obviously, we went with Matt (Hennessy) in the second half. We felt that was best as the game went. Not an indictment on Drew (Dalman), who’s played some decent football when we asked him to. It’s a tough matchup inside. We went with the hot hand in the second half. We’ll just continue to evaluate that.”

The Panthers had three sacks and eight quarterback hits in their 19-13 win over the Falcons on Oct. 31.

The Falcons have run the ball for more than 100 yards in each of their last two games. That could help to slow the Panthers’ pass rushers. The Panthers have 32 sacks, led by Haason Reddick’s 10.5 sacks and Brian Burns’ eight.

“We definitely feel more in sync,” Smith said of the run attack. “Especially some of the stuff in the wide zone. I think you’re seeing some stuff pay off, and it’s just one thing and that’s about the game of football. It just takes one thing to be off there, and it can be the difference in a good play and a disaster.”

Smith noted that the offensive linemen are winning more of the battles in the run game.

“It depends what you’re trying to attack, but I think we’re getting more in sync,” Smith said. “We certainly do things better, but we just got to keep trending in the right directed to give us a chance to win and play well down the stretch.”

2. Davis is Falcons’ Payton winner: Running back Mike Davis was named the Falcons’ nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, which recognizes NFL players for having a positive impact in their community.

3. Rematch with the Panthers: The Falcons are expecting a tough battle against the Panthers with second place in the NFC South on the line.

“It’ll be a tough divisional game no matter what’s going on over there,” Smith said. “Kind of worried about ourselves. We understand who they’ve got, and it’s not all of a sudden overnight you’re going to see some completely new offense or anything like that. So, we’re going to be ready to go.”

In the previous meeting the Falcons held a 10-9 lead, but couldn’t move the ball. The Panthers leaned on their running game and got a field goal and a touchdown on a 6-yard run by Chuba Hubbard with 6:30 left in the game to take 19-10 lead.

Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo made a 53-yard field goal with 16 seconds left, but the Panthers’ Robby Anderson recovered the onside kick to secure the victory.

The Panthers ran the ball 47 times for 203 yards. It was the most yards the Falcons have given up on the ground this season.

“We didn’t do a good enough job … finishing drives (against) Carolina and (playing) situational football, which cost us the game,” Smith said.

4. Facing Cam Newton: Cam Newton has played in three games and made two starts with the Panthers and has completed 29 of 52 passes (55.8%) for 289 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has a passer rating of 74.9.

Newton has rushed 16 times for 65 yards and three touchdowns.

“They got Cam in there, and he provides another weapon to run the football, and we’ll see what their game plan is,” Smith said. “We’ll see it early, but we got to be ready to go.”

5. Panthers’ offense: Carolina has struggled on offense. They rank 28th in total yards (308.7 per game) and 23rd in scoring (19.7 points per game). The Panthers started the season 3-0 and their spiral can be traced to the ankle injury sustained by running back Christian McCaffrey, who’s out for the season.

Coach Matt Rhule wanted the Panthers to run the ball more, while former offensive coordinator Joe Brady kept the team passing.

“He’s done a lot to get us moving in the right direction, but this was something I felt like from a football perspective we needed to do now,” Rhule told Charlotte-area media members Monday. “Out of respect to Joe, I probably won’t go into tremendous detail; this was just something as hard as it is, I felt was right for us right now.”

Brady was the youngest coordinator in the league at age 30 when he was hired.

“I’m going to count on the coaches we have and the players that we have,” Rhule said. “We have to coach our best and play our best in the coming weeks. I felt with the bye week, this was the appropriate time.”

Jeff Nixon will take over the play-calling duties for the Panthers.

6. Series history: This will be the 54th meeting. The Falcons lead the series 33-20. The Panthers have won two of the past three. Newton, a three-time Pro Bowl player and former league MVP from Westlake High, is 6-9 against the Falcons.

7. Falcons’ injury report: Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst (ankle) is set to return to practice after his stint on injured reserve.

The team had no updates on wide receiver Calvin Ridley or guard Matt Gono. Ridley is on the non-football injury list attending to his mental well-being. Gono (seen in neck brace) is on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

“Well, Hayden is back in the building,” Smith said. “He’ll be back at practice. We’ll see what it looks like. There are no other updates. As soon as we get an update on Ridley, we’ll let you know. Gono, we’ll have to hear from the doctors when they check in with him.”

To make room for Hurst, the Falcons released tight end Parker Hesse. The team has elected to stay with punter Thomas Morstead and released punter Dustin Colquitt, who came off the reserve COVID-19 list.

Hurst has played in nine games and made five starts. He has been targeted 25 times and has caught 20 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. He has picked up eight first downs on his receptions.

8. Betting line: The Falcons are three-point underdogs and the over-under is 42.5 points on betonline.ag.

9. Depth chart: The Falcons released their official depth chart for the Panthers game Tuesday.

Right cornerback Fabian Moreau, who’s started every game, left the game Sunday with a hamstring injury against the Buccaneers. We know those hamstrings can be tricky.

Avery Williams and Kendall Sheffield are listed as his backups, but rookie Darren Hall has been getting some action recently.

The Falcons could also be without Richie Grant (ankle) and outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji (ankle), who suffered injuries against the Bucs.

“The guys from the game, we’ll know more as the week goes on,” Smith said. “Who’s all right. We won’t know until we get those guys out there throughout the week. Get them some work and see where they are at.”

Here’s the Falcons’ depth chart for the Panthers’ game:

OFFENSE

WR - Tajae Sharpe, Christian Blake, (Calvin Ridley on the NFI list)

TE - Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst (Not listed by team, but his 21-day window to return has started)

LT - Jake Matthews, Jason Spriggs

LG - Jaylen Mayfield, Josh Andrews

C - Matt Hennessy, Drew Dalman

RG - Chris Lindstrom, Drew Dalman

RT – Kaleb McGarry, Colby Gossett

TE – Lee Smith, *Keith Smith (Has not lined up as traditional TE), *Feleipe Franks (was part of TE/QB package)

WR - Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Frank Darby

RB - Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Davis, Qadree Ollison (Practice squad, but was active over Gallman last week), Wayne Gallman (The team still lists Davis as No. 1, but we all know the real deal.)

*FB - Keith Smith, Cordarrelle Patterson (Added to reflect that they played the position in the opener.)

QB - Matt Ryan, Josh Rosen, Feleipe Franks

DEFENSE

DL - Grady Jarrett, Marlon Davidson

NT - Tyeler Davison, *Anthony Rush, Ta’Quon Graham

L - Jonathan Bullard, Mike Pennel, John Cominsky

OLB - Dante Fowler, Brandon Copeland

ILB - Deion Jones, Mykal Walker

ILB - Foyesade Oluokun, Emmanuel Ellerbee

OLB – Steven Means, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, James Vaughters

LCB - A.J. Terrell, Darren Hall

FS - Erik Harris, Jaylinn Hawkins

SS - Duron Harmon, Richie Grant

RCB - Fabian Moreau, Avery Williams, Kendall Sheffield

SPECIAL TEAMS

K - Younghoe Koo

P – Thomas Morstead

LS - Josh Harris

H - Thomas Morstead

PR - Avery Williams, Olamide Zaccheaus

KOR - Avery Williams, Cordarrelle Patterson (Team still lists Patterson as No. 1, but Williams has taken over with Patterson needed more at running back.)

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Falcons’ 2021 schedule features trip to London, January trip to Buffalo

Atlanta Falcons schedule and scores

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington 34, Falcons 30

Falcons 27, Jets 20

Bye Week

Falcons 30, Dolphins 28

Panthers 19, Falcons 13

Falcons 27, Saints 25

Cowboys 43, Falcons 3

Patriots 25, Falcons 0

Falcons 21, Jaguars 14

Buccaneers 30, Falcons 17

Final Five games

Falcons at Carolina, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12

Falcons at San Francisco, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19

Detroit Lions at Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 26

Falcons at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 2

New Orleans Saints at Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 9

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