Can Changes At Offensive Line Give the Atlanta Falcons New Hope?

By Michael Collins

OK folks, the secret is out.  Last year’s Atlanta Falcons offensive line was a bit on the substandard side.  I know this comes as a shock to some of you, but we can’t hide the truth anymore.  What was probably the worst kept secret in the NFL is now public knowledge.  These guys stunk.  But the good news is, the Falcons’ coaching staff already knew.   (You can take off the sarcasm detecting glasses now).

Speaking truthfully, 2011 was a rather woeful year for the guys in the trenches in front of Matt Ryan, and it was a subject that dominated much of the Falcons off-season chatter.  If you step back and look at things in that all-too-often used “big picture” perspective, things really didn’t look bad at all.  Matt Ryan had his best season to date as a pro, and the Falcons were ranked eighth in the league in passing.  Michael Turner rushed for over 1300 yards, and hit his career high as a receiver out of the backfield.  And despite an early season case of the dropsies, Roddy White had another 100 catch, 1200 receiving yard season.  If you paint a picture with that set of brushes, the Falcons should have been playing well into February.

But the truth is, it was situational offense where the Falcons failed.  Huge missed opportunities in big games that cost Atlanta a possible division championship, and probably even more in this past season’s playoffs.

What had been perpetually one of the best rushing offenses (and offensive lines) in the league couldn’t get the job done on 4th-and-1 or 3rd-and-1 when it counted the most.  The Falcons were horrid on short yardage, and on 3rd down conversions.  Time and again, Atlanta handed the ball – as they had done so many times in the past – to Michael Turner to rumble over Matt Ryan’s right side to gain that precious yard (or even inches).  But Turner never even got out of the backfield.  4th-and-inches against the New Orleans Saints, 3rd-and-1 against the Green Bay Packers, and a quarterback sneak on 4th-and-1 against the New York Giants in the playoffs that were all stuffed like a Brooklyn calzone.  Issues at the right guard position, specifically Garrett Reynolds and Joe Hawley.

Things weren’t as pretty as it might seem on passing downs either.  Ryan was sacked a career high 26 times in 2011, and those sacks almost always seemed to come at the most inopportune times.  It was almost as if the better defenses that Atlanta played (Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants) were almost able to blitz at will and completely disrupt Matt Ryan’s timing…or lay him on the turf.  Even in some of his completions, Ryan didn’t look comfortable in the pocket.  Ryan never truly showed that sense of confidence in his line to protect him.  Issues at the left tackle position, specifically Sam Baker and Will Svitek.

It would seem that through this year’s draft, and some young players who were hurt last season, the right guard position should be filled nicely.  I don’t see either Hawley or Reynolds even competing for the starting job.  At best, they’ll be scrapping for roster spots as reserves.

Second year player Mike Johnson seemed to be doing a good job in his limited play at guard last year, until he went down with a season-ending ankle injury.  He’ll be back with something to prove this season.  Prior to the draft, the Falcons picked up veteran Vince Manuwai after he was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Manuwai was a stalwart of the Jacksonville offensive line, but got injured at just the wrong time, and basically had his days numbered with the Jaguars due to the lockout.  Not much downside in the Manuwai acquisition.  And then there is Peter Konz, this year’s first pick from the second round out of Wisconsin.  Although truly a center, Konz comes in with the ability to play any of the three interior offensive line positions, so don’t count him out of the competition to start at guard.   My pick:  Vince Manuwai.  I think Vince will show the Jaguars that he still had plenty left in the tank.  He’ll be a great teacher for the youngsters Johnson and Konz.

Left tackle is a completely different story.  About a week before the 2012 draft, coach Mike Smith stated categorically that not only would Sam Baker be back on this year’s roster, but he would compete for the starting left tackle position.  The sound from the number of facepalms that ensued around Atlanta was thunderous.

Not only has Baker never lived up to the hype of his first round pick in 2008, but he and his ramen-noodle back are barely eking out an existence with the Falcons.  Will Svitek was a noticeable improvement over Baker in pass protection, but he offered absolutely nothing in terms of run blocking and being able to move defensive linemen around.  The Falcons picked Lamar Holmes out of Southern Mississippi in the third round, and he will compete strongly for the starting role at left tackle. Holmes’ never quit attitude will go a long way with coach Pat Hill.  My pick:  Lamar Holmes. If Holmes can even play as well as Baker or Svitek, then he’ll get the nod as the starter.  He’s got much more potential than either of the other guys.

If this re-tooled line can do what they are supposed to do, then the pressure will be squarely on the shoulders of two men in 2012.  Matt Ryan, and Mike Smith.

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