Falcons' resurgence starts with O-line
The Atlanta Falcons are one of this year’s early surprise-teams, coming off only 10 wins over the past two seasons combined. We knew Matt Ryan (+ 8.6) and Julio Jones (+14.4) were really good, and while many felt the defense would be improved given the addition of new coach Dan Quinn, some under-the-radar free agent acquisitions, and No. 8 overall draft pick Vic Beasley, one issue that had yet to be truly addressed was the offensive line.
In 2013, the Falcons’ O-line finished 30th in pass-blocking efficiency and allowed the most pressures in the NFL; 2014 told much of the same story, as the Falcons finished 24th in pass-blocking effenciency with the third-most pressures allowed. It seemed that the Atlanta O-line was headed for another disastrous season, especially after their Week 3 preseason showing in Miami, in which Matt Ryan was pulled early in the game for sheer survival reasons.
Then, the following week after their final preseason game, they traded a 2016 sixth-round and 2017 conditional pick for out-of-favor Tennessee Titans G Andy Levitre. Thus, the regular season began with a line consisting of 2014 sixth overall pick LT Jake Matthews, LG Levitre, journeymen free agent additions C Mike Person and RG Chris Chester, and holdover RT Ryan Schraeder—a line that had not taken a snap together before Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
How has it worked out? Through three games, the unit is rated third in run-blocking, paving the way for 106.3 yards per game average (12th in the NFL) in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. In addition, the Falcons have the No. 1 graded FB in Patrick DiMarco (+6.4 grade, +5.2 in run-blocking), aiding the surprising ground game resurgence.
Where they have excelled most, though, is in the passing game—allowing Matt Ryan and Julio Jones time to craft their record-setting early season pace. The unit is PFF’s No. 1 graded O-line in pass-blocking efficiency and total pressures allowed, giving up only two sacks and 13 total pressures through three games.
Individually, Jake Matthews is playing this season like a healthy, top-10 pick should. After a rookie season in which he played through various injuries in route to being the PFF’s lowest rated tackle (-36.8 grade), health and the new scheme have allowed Matthews to flourish. Through three weeks, he is the fourth-ranked LT (+8.1 grade) and No. 1 tackle in pass-blocking efficiency, allowing only one hurry and no sacks thus far. His teammate on the other side at RT, Ryan Schraeder, has excelled, as well. Schraeder (+3.6 overall) is currently second among RTs in overall grade, and third among all tackles in pass-blocking efficiency, allowing only two total pressures thus far. Chris Chester at RG (+4.5 overall grade, ninth among guards) is also playing very well in the early going.
In the end, if this hastily put together unit can keep up their current pace, giving Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman running lanes, and keeping Matt Ryan free to find the beast that is Julio Jones, the Falcons can target more than just an NFC South crown.