Falcons comfortable with rotating centers Matt Hennessy, Drew Dalman

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons coach Arthur Smith talks about 'putting the best five guys out there' while breaking down recent rotation efforts at center.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Paul Brown, perhaps the greatest NFL coach ever and a noted innovator, used messenger guards to relay his plays into the game in the 1950s and 1960s.

So, juggling offensive linemen, while unconventional, is nothing new to professional football.

However, first-year Falcons coach Arthur Smith’s plan to rotate centers Matt Hennessy and Drew Dalman made its debut in the Falcons’ 21-14 win over Jacksonville on Sunday.

The experiment was a success and may continue when the Falcons (5-6) face the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers (8-3) and their stout defensive front at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Hennessy played 40 of the 60 offensive snaps (67%) and Dalman played 20 snaps (33%) against the Jaguars. Smith said he thought the rotation made the Falcons’ offense better. The plan was for Hennessy to play two series and then Dalman to play two series.

Hennessy was drafted in the third round (78th overall) of the 2020 draft by the former regime. He was in line to be the heir apparent to Alex Mack.

The Falcons passed on Lloyd Cushenberry, who went five picks after Hennessy to the Denver Broncos. He’s started 27 consecutive games and was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team last season.

The new administration, general manager Terry Fontenot and Smith, didn’t have enough salary-cap room to re-sign Mack and then drafted Dalman in the fourth round (114th overall) this year.

Dalman outperformed Hennessy against Jacksonville, according to analytics site Pro Football Focus. Dalman received a 72.7 run-blocking grade and 63.7 pass-blocking grade. His overall grade was 71.2.

Hennessy received a run-blocking grade of 70.6 and pass-blocking grade of 43. Hennessy’s overall grade was 66.3. His overall grade for the season is 67, which ranks him 16th of 39 centers who have played the minimum amount of snaps.

“Both guys are a little bit different players,” Smith said. “I thought the competition brought out the best in both of them. So, we’ll see what the plan of attack is this week as we put the game plan in.”

Smith saw positives from both of the players.

“I thought Matt Hennessey played solid, and I thought Drew (Dalman) did a nice job coming in,” Smith said. “Both of them have bright futures. I know they’re both playing center, but we’ll see where it goes.”

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051421 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Joe Sculthorpe (from left), Drew Dalman, and Ryan Neuzil works from center during rookie minicamp on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Flowery Branch. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

051421 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Joe Sculthorpe (from left), Drew Dalman, and Ryan Neuzil works from center during rookie minicamp on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Flowery Branch.     “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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051421 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Joe Sculthorpe (from left), Drew Dalman, and Ryan Neuzil works from center during rookie minicamp on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Flowery Branch. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Falcons used Dalman at guard some in the exhibition season before settling on Jalen Mayfield and Josh Andrews at left guard. Chris Lindstrom is solidly entrenched at right guard.

Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan plays a key role in the center rotation.

When we had those discussions, I included Matt on that because it does affect him,” Smith said. “It depends on the guy you’re operating with that they may not be able to handle that. That says a lot about Matt Ryan.”

Smith and the Falcons are leaving no stone unturned while trying to play competitive football this season. He noted the Falcons are 5-2 in one-score games.

“Anything we think that can help this football team, we’ll try,” Smith said. “I don’t care if it’s been done before or not, we’ll try it if we think it can help this team. So certainly, something we’ve talked about as a staff. Sat with Matt Hennessey and Drew Dalman both. Talked to them about the plan. They handled it well, and ultimately Matt Ryan had to be involved in that as well because it does affect him.”

Ryan reviewed the play of both players.

“I thought both guys did a good job,” Ryan said. “I thought that after the game Sunday. I thought after watching it Monday morning as well. I thought both guys came in from an identification standpoint in the run game. I thought they did a nice job. Both did from a physical standpoint, played well.”

Ryan’s on board if Smith elects to keep playing two centers.

“So, I think you’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to win,” Ryan said. “This time of the year, whatever that looks like, we’ve got a group of guys that are unselfish and put the team first.”

The Falcons may switch things up against Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranks No. 1 in the NFL against the run. The Bucs allow just 81 yards rushing per game.

“(Smith) works really hard all week to try and come up with the best possible game plan, whether it is plays or players, for us to be successful,” Ryan said. “So, we’ll see what that looks like at the end of the week. From what I saw from both of those guys last week, they did a nice job.”

The Falcons rushed for a season-high 149 yards against the Jags.

“The rationale is to make sure that we’ve got the best five guys out there,” Smith said. “The only way to know if you want to make a change or if you feel like somebody else deserves playing time, is to play them. That’s the rationale. It worked.”

So did the messenger guards for Brown, who also tried to use radios in helmets long before it became a thing.

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Atlanta Falcons center Matt Hennessy (61) is shown during their NFL training camp football practice Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: AP

Atlanta Falcons center Matt Hennessy (61) is shown during their NFL training camp football practice Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta Falcons center Matt Hennessy (61) is shown during their NFL training camp football practice Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

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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

Next four games

Tampa Bay at Falcons, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5

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

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