Protecting Matt Ryan is vital to the success of the Falcons, and it starts with the offensive line. Over the last three seasons, Ryan has been sacked 42, 48, and 41 times respectively. Sacks can sometimes be an arbitrary statistic; in fact, most defensive coaches point towards pressures — a total of sacks, hurries, and QB hits — as a better indicator of consistent success or failure depending on which side of the ball you’re on. Looking at the pressures the Falcons quarterback has faced is troublesome — 174 pressures in 2019, good for 28th in the league; 167 pressures in 2020, good for 24th in the league.
Protecting Matty Ice isn’t just about the offensive line performing better in pass protection; establishing the run game will inherently protect the quarterback. Arthur Smith knows that too, “Obviously, we’re going to go as the line goes.” When an offense is balanced, defenses are reactive and not proactive. Like most other successful units around the league, Smith’s offense wants to establish the run and then build the passing game off of it within similar formations and presnap motion. When the offensive line creates a push in the run game, protecting in passing situations becomes easier. Offensive play-callers who can protect their quarterback with specific sequences of plays are the most successful — play-action, quick passes, moving the pocket, etc.
The Falcons added a few offensive linemen this offseason to replace recent departures from James Carpenter and Alex Mack. Matt Gono returned to Atlanta after signing his tender offer; Josh Andrews signed on a one-year deal; Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman were brought in through the draft. Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom have cemented their starting roles, and Kaleb McGary is likely to be penciled in at right tackle — left tackle, right guard, and right tackle are the only three spots that have a player who started every game at the position returning. This leaves question marks around center and left guard.
In a media session, Falcons offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford listed the players who will compete for those open positions along the line. It wasn’t difficult to figure out that Mayfield, Gono, Andrews, and Dalman will duke it out for the starting left guard position, and Matt Hennessy and Dalman will battle it out at center. “A lot of guys will be rolling around in a lot of different positions,” Ledford said. “We’ll be trying a lot of different pieces at different times and throughout our evaluations this offseason going through camp, then it will be determined who those five will be.” The most underrated acquisition this offseason is Ledford. His task of reviving the Falcons offensive line is a tall one, but he understands exactly what his head coach expects of his linemen in the zone blocking scheme Smith deploys. A combination of Smith’s offense catering to the personnel provided and Ledford’s experience developing linemen will improve the unit as a whole, but did Terry Fontenot do enough to solidify the group on the offense that needed it most?