Falcons coach vows that ‘the best five’ linemen will protect Ryan

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford discusses how the team plans to provide more protection for QB Matt Ryan during the 2021 season.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Falcons offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford has one job, protect quarterback Matt Ryan.

Well, that’s an oversimplification because he has other jobs, but that’s the No. 1 priority of new coach Arthur Smith and his coaching staff.

“The first thing we talked about as a unit, is we’ve got to understand the importance of protecting our quarterback,” said Ledford, a former NFL lineman but a rookie NFL coach. “It’s having pride in doing that.”

Ryan has been under siege over the past three seasons.

For review, Ryan has been sacked 42, 48 and 41 times over the past three seasons. A deeper dive into the Falcons’ pressure numbers over that time paint a grim picture.

In 2018, in addition to the 42 sacks, Ryan was hit 48 times and hurried 53 times for a pressure number (sacks plus hurries and hits) of 143, which ranked 13th in the NFL.

The Falcons drafted right tackle Kaleb McGary and guard Chris Lindstrom in 2019. They also signed guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter during that offseason. Lindstrom was injured in the opener that year, and McGary, Brown and Carpenter all struggled.

In 2019, in addition to Ryan’s 48 sacks, Matt Schaub was sacked twice to make it 50 overall. So, with 68 hits and 56 hurries, the team’s pressure number was 174, which ranked 28th in the league.

Last season, Lindstrom was back at right guard, but there was still a hole at left guard, and McGary continued to struggle against speed rushers.

In addition to Ryan’s 41 sacks, he was hurried 55 times and was hit 71 times for a pressure number of 167, which ranked 24th in the league.

The overall numbers are staggering: Ryan has been sacked 131 times, hit 167 times and hurried 164 times. That’s a pressure number of 462.

“Individually, it’s got to be personal with you,” Ledford said. “Keeping your man from getting to the quarterback. Obviously, that’s going to be … protecting the quarterback, that’s a huge thing for us up front. It’s going to be something that we work on fundamentally day-in and day-out. It’s just that pride factor that we are going to have as a unit in protecting our quarterback.”

To help with the pass protection and to stay out of so many obvious passing situations, the Falcons also must improve their rushing attack, which ranked 27th, 30th and 27th in the league over the past three seasons.

“In the first meeting I was able to have with my guys in that room with the offensive line, we talked about the run game, and we talked about protecting the quarterback,” Ledford said. “We talked about protecting the quarterback has to be something that is (about) pride. It’s something that we’re going to take a lot of pride in. When we talked about the run game … that’s just an attitude.”

In this offseason, center Alex Mack signed with the 49ers in free agency, and Carpenter was released. The Falcons have openings at left guard and at center and could look for challengers for McGary.

The Falcons drafted Michigan tackle Jalen Mayfield in the third round and Stanford center Drew Dalman in the fourth. They both will compete for starting spots.

Mayfield mostly played right tackle at Michigan, but the Falcons will move him to guard.

“I like him. When we are looking at these prospects, we want them to show us that they are playing with a certain demeanor about them,” Ledford said. “A certain style of play. We want to see guys coming off the football. You know, playing fast.”

Mayfield passed that test.

“You (saw) him going all the way through the whistle on plays,” Ledford said. “He’s somebody that’s giving everything that he’s got on the field.”

Mayfield said he’d be more comfortable at tackle, but wouldn’t mind moving to guard.

“I think Jalen, when you watched his film, that’s something that stuck out with me was his play style,” Ledford said. “You saw that he liked to mix it up. He liked to get after it in the run game. He was very athletic.”

Ledford mentioned Josh Andrews, Matt Gono and Mayfield when asked about the open left guard spot. He also noted their position flexibility to play tackle.

Dalman and Matt Hennessy, who was a third-round pick from Temple last year, figure to headline the competition for the starting center position.

“That center spot is such a valuable piece to the offense,” Ledford said. “It all starts with a guy being able to snap the football and do all of the things that we’re asking him to do. Having competition, I think that’s going to bring out the best in both players.”

Hennessy started last season rotating at left guard. He started the last two games at center after interim coach Raheem Morris stopped the rotation.

“I’ve been real impressed with Matt Hennessy,” Ledford said.

Ledford believes the line can be fixed.

“For us, we want to build great competition among all of the positions and guys playing at their best,” Ledford said. “For whatever shakes (out) with the best five, it’s going to be the best five, getting those guys on the football field.”

In Ledford’s world, pass protection equals pride, and run blocking equals attitude.

AJC’S POSITION-BY-POSITION NFL DRAFT SERIES

QUARTERBACKS: How far will Justin Fields drop in draft? | Top 10 QBs

RUNNING BACKS: Plenty of prospects to pick from | Top 10 RBs

WIDE RECEIVERS: Draft deep with talent | Top 10 WRs

TIGHT ENDS: Ability to create mismatches is key | Top 10 TEs

OFFENSIVE TACKLES: A ‘nasty’ bunch | Top 10 OTs

OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS: The men in the middle | Top 10 C/OGs

END RUSHERS: Pass on this draft stock | Top 10 DEs

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: One star among lackluster block | Top 10 DTs

LINEBACKERS: Deep class for position | Top 10 LBs

CORNERBACKS: Plethora of options for first two rounds | Top 10 CBs

SAFETIES: Falcons likely will add position player | Top 10 Safeties

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