Falcons’ 2021 season review: offensive line

Jan. 9, 2022 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is helped up by offensive tackle Kaleb McGary (76) as guard Colby Gossett (66) is shown during the second half against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Jan. 9, 2022 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is helped up by offensive tackle Kaleb McGary (76) as guard Colby Gossett (66) is shown during the second half against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ 2021 season under first-year coach Arthur Smith. Today: the offensive line.

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons know their offensive line is one of the weaker links on the team.

“We’ve got to continue to improve,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “There’s a lot of ways to fix it. Obviously down to the end of the year, we need more shots on goal. I think, when you go in the game and you don’t have the ball very long -- a lot of it was self-inflicted.”

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The Falcons had to start one of the lower rated players at right tackle, had a second-year center that they tried to take snaps from three-quarters of the way through the season and played a rookie guard for more than 1,000 snaps, including special-teams plays.

Right guard Chris Lindstrom was the rock of the first-team unit, while left tackle Jake Matthews was solid.

Kaleb McGary started all 17 games, and one thing you can say about him is that he’s durable. He played 989 offensive snaps and had only three penalties – a holding and two false starts.

However, McGary had a 62.4 (F) blocking grade from Pro Football Focus and allowed nine sacks, which was tied for second in the NFL among tackles.

Matthews played 1,029 snaps, it was the fifth consecutive year that he’s played over 1,000. He finished with seven penalties, three holding calls and four false starts. He allowed three sacks and had a 71.4, a C, by PFF.

Lindstrom played 1,037 offensive snaps and did not allow a sack. He had two penalties, a false start and an ineligible man downfield on an RPO. He finished with a 84.1 (B) grade from PFF.

Rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield had a bumpy start in the season opener, but after a week of practice the Falcons elected to stay with the third-round pick from Michigan.

Mayfield played 989 snaps on offense and led the league in sacks allowed by a guard, with 11. He also had nine penalties, which normally were drive killers for a team that couldn’t run the ball and was short on playmakers.

Mayfield had a 49.3 (F) grade from PFF, and Colby Gossett started the regular-season finale for Mayfield.

Matt Hennessy was the starting center, but in Week 12 the Falcons tried to play rookie Drew Dalman. The rotation lasted for a game and half. Hennessy finished the season as the starter.

Hennessy played 911 snaps and had five penalties and allowed three sacks. He finished with a 77 (C) grade from PFF.

Dalman, in a small sample size of 68 plays, had a 78.3 grade.

Against Jacksonville, Hennessy played 40 of the 60 offensive snaps (67%) and Dalman played 20 snaps (33%). The plan was for Hennessy to play two series and then Dalman to play two series.

In the 2020 draft, the Falcons passed on LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry, who went to the Denver Broncos five picks after the Falcons drafted Hennessy. Cushenberry has started 32 consecutive games and was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team last season.

However, Cushenberry had a 64 (F) grade this season and allowed five sacks.

Veteran Josh Andrews, who was the top left guard before suffering a hand injury right before the start of the season, did not play any offensive snaps and played in only two games on special teams.

Also, guard Matt Gono, suffered a serious injury that kept him out of the entire season.

Jason Spriggs, a former high pick of the Packers, ended the season as the swing tackle.

Behind this group, the Falcons couldn’t run the ball, as they finished 31st in the league at 85.4 yards per game.

They also couldn’t protect the passer, as Matt Ryan was sacked 40 times. It was the fourth consecutive season that the Falcons have allowed Ryan to be sacked 40 or more times.

Smith didn’t want to single out the line for their poor season when asked about them directly.

“We need to be better all around,” Smith said. “There’s multiple ways you can improve the fronts. We’ve got to improve this whole team as we climb.”

If they don’t improve the offensive line, there will be no returned to the playoffs nor the sustained winning that the new regime talks about.

FALCONS O-LINE GRADES

Name+Sacks Allowed+Grade

McGary+9+62.4 F

Lindstrom+0+84.1 B

Hennessey+3+77 C

Mayfield+11+49.3 F

Matthews+3+71.4 C

Source: Pro Football Focus

Atlanta Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide Receivers/Tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Special teams

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