Now’s the time for Falcons to forge stronger offensive line

The Falcons always look good in helmets and shorts. Matt Ryan to Julio Jones, the best thing they have going, shines in that format. What you can’t see in those no-contact sessions is whether the Falcons can effectively block for Ryan and the running game. The answer to that question is the most important one for this season.

The Falcons started gathering evidence this week. They had their first practice with pads Tuesday. They scrimmaged in pads Thursday. They are allowed only 12 more padded practices through Sept. 6. That will be it for live-contact sessions from the end of last season to the Sept. 13 opener against the Seahawks.

That’s not a lot of time for the line to figure things out.

“We’ve got some work to do,” Falcons center Alex Mack said. “Camp is all about fitting blocks, and we didn’t have (offseason team practices). We have to start fast and really get to work and communicate a lot and try to do it and get as many reps as we can.”

In some ways, this summer looks like summer 2016 for the Falcons. Everybody remembers the all-time great offense the Falcons rode to Super Bowl that season. But the Falcons were average on offense the previous season. The rapid improvement correlated with better line play.

The group was pretty good in 2015, with center Mike Person as the weak link. It was great in 2016 after adding Mack. Effective, unified line play was key to unlocking the full potential of coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense in Year 2.

This is Year 2 for the Falcons with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. (He had the same job from 2012-14, but that’s a lifetime ago in football.) Technically, rookie left guard Matt Hennessy is the only new projected starter along the offensive line. Right guard Chris Lindstrom would have started more than five games last season if not for left foot surgery.

Continuity might be a strength for the line. Mack and left tackle Jake Matthews are the most consistent performers. Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary can improve in their second season while forming a connection on the right side. Falcons coach Dan Quinn has declared that Lindstrom is “ready to make a big leap” based on his performance in camp.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons right tackle Kaleb McGary discusses his play and blocking for running back Todd Gurley.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Falcons have talent along the line. Theoretically, there’s more of it now than in 2016.

Four of the projected starters this season were drafted in the first round. The Falcons took Hennessy in the third round. In 2016, the line featured two former first-round picks, Mack and Matthews. Valdosta State overachiever Ryan Schraeder was the starting right tackle.

Individual talent is important at all positions. For the offensive line, coordination and cohesiveness probably is at least as important. I remember watching Falcons linemen do that while running and running in the summers of 2015 and 2016. They were committing to the outside zone scheme: running parallel to the line of scrimmage blocking defenders on the move, and getting out beyond the line to take on more defenders.

You could tell back then that the Falcons had something brewing with their offensive line. They are trying to re-establish that identity with a group that still includes Mack and Matthews.

“All of the players here are brought in with the ability to really crush it in this scheme,” Quinn said. “It’s going to take rep after rep after rep to see that. How does a block set up for a (running) back? (It’s) the way we sprint off the ball. ... You have to keep doing it over and over and over again.”

There would be more time for that in a normal year. The Falcons could tinker with combinations, bring Hennessy along slowly and run and run their linemen like they did years ago. This year COVID-19 wiped out offseason work and exhibition games while limiting preseason practice. The Falcons need to quickly settle on a starting group and then get as much as they can out of the 14 padded practices.

It helps that the Falcons are working in only one new starter. Another stable element is offensive line coach Chris Morgan, who was hired before the 2015 season.

“He’s got a lot of energy,” Mack said of Morgan. “He’s been in the outside zone scheme for a long time. I think the key for us to play better is to try to really get some stability in that line. Have our guys (set), have them commit to playing those few guys and getting used to playing together and ripping it.”

The Falcons’ 2020 outlook improves considerably if their offensive line quickly comes together. Much of the focus has been on the defense. It improved from 30th in the Football Outsiders efficiency metric over the first eight games of 2019 to 20th at season’s end. But the offense made only marginal strides: 18th in efficiency after eight games, 15th at the end of the season.

The Falcons scored more than two touchdowns on offense three times in their first eight games (garbage time excluded). The offense didn’t fire in losses to Minnesota (zero points when it mattered), Tennessee (10 points) and Seattle (11 points when it mattered). Throw out two games against the Panthers, who couldn’t stop anybody, and over the last half of the season the Falcons scored more than two offensive touchdowns twice in the other six games.

Ryan and Koetter weren’t faultless for the offensive flame-outs. The quarterback made some bad decisions. The coordinator never full embraced play-action passes (data shows they are more effective than straight drop-backs independent of run success). But a leaky line makes it very hard to play quarterback and call plays.

Good blocking is how the Falcons can get the most out of their best players, Ryan and Jones. It’s how they can help running back Todd Gurley rediscover some of his All-Pro form. He’s not as spry because of knee issues, but Gurley also was stymied by poor line play with the Rams in 2019. Good blocking would give Koetter more options.

Now that they’ve put the pads on, the Falcons are really getting to work forming a good offensive line. They’ll just need to do it fast.

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