Many Falcons fans thought 2013 was an anomaly. Sure, the team struggled, but they were plagued by injuries, something the Falcons had been relatively insulated from in the Matt Ryan era. The offensive line was bad, but the team addressed those weaknesses, drafting tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and signing Jonathan Asamoah to shore up the right guard position, arguably the biggest weakness in 2013.
Then the team lost left tackle Sam Baker to injury in the preseason. No big deal, right? Baker has been adequate when healthy, but he has also rarely been healthy. This was possibly the least surprising thing that could have happened. Jake Matthews, considered by most to be the left tackle of the future in Atlanta, just got an early start at the position. Joe Hawley provided a great deal of stability at center, and flanked by veterans Asamoah and Justin Blalock, the team should have been in pretty good shape even with Lamar Holmes at right tackle. Then the team traveled to Minnesota to take on the Vikings and the offensive line met their Waterloo.
It's still difficult to believe that the Falcons lost so many linemen to injury in one game that they had to bring in Levine Toilolo to play tackle. To add insult to literal injury, Atlanta lost backup-turned-starting center Peter Konz for the season last week. The offensive line appears to be in dire straits, and if you need justification of that statement, look no further than the current depth chart. Harland Gunn is the backup listed for center, right guard, and left guard. The team also has Ryan Schraeder and newer additions Cameron Bradfield and Jonathan Scott to work with as depth on the active roster. That's it.
So it's not a surprise that, much to the chagrin of Falcons fans, the offensive line is struggling yet again. A team can't lose that many linemen and expect otherwise. But the Falcons, in a season where a 2-5 start has not knocked them out of playoff contention thanks to the overall ineptitude of the entire NFC South, need to improve the o-line play to stay in the hunt. How can that even be done in light of the personnel they're working with on the roster?
It's tempting, especially when playing from behind, to want to take a five or seven-step drop and look for the big play to Julio Jones or Roddy White, but I'd like to see Matt Ryan look more toward three-step drops and very quick releases and just keep moving the sticks regardless of the score. Ryan is really accurate on intermediate passes from a three-step drop and the team just needs to focus on moving the ball and getting first downs right now.
The pocket is collapsing almost instantaneously these days, so they need to accept that as reality and adapt to it. The Falcons have personnel who can do some damage on quick slants and intermediate crossing routes. It's also important to establish and maintain a ground game to take some pressure off, and the line isn't doing well blocking for runs up the middle, so start looking for ways to get speedy guys (read: Antone Smith) outside and into space quickly.
Quick releases could have the additional benefit of limiting holding penalties. The offensive line has been responsible for 25 of the team's 32 offensive penalties, and 11 of those have been holding penalties. Ryan has mentioned multiple times that part of the team's offensive struggle is trying to overcome down and distance disadvantages, and those are often brought on by penalties. When the team is working with a first and 20 because of a holding penalty, it's a lot harder to get to a third and manageable situation. If Ryan is releasing the ball more quickly he's taking some of that pressure off of an offensive line that really needs all of the help it can get.
Keeping in mind that the Falcons have very few offensive linemen on the active roster to work with at this point, they could do things a little differently in terms of personnel. Gabe Carimi has had a couple of bad games after good games against the Bengals, Vikings and Giants. If you watch the All-22 from the last couple of weeks, it looks like Carimi is just not physically 100%. He seems really stiff compared to earlier in the season and has a hard time maneuvering to his right. Considering that Justin Blalock has remained on the injury report with the back injury he suffered against the Vikings and the difficulty I see Jake Matthews having planting the ankle that he injured in week one, the injuries guys are playing through on the line seem to be a significant part of the problem. This is an issue that will be consistent across all teams at this point of the season, but when the Falcons have already dipped so deeply into the o-line depth chart, it exacerbates things for Atlanta.
Matthews is struggling on the left side, due to a combination of factors--the ankle and standard rookie growing pains being chief among them--and Justin Blalock hasn't been healthy enough to pick up the slack, either. Carimi is really versatile, and based on his comments to the media this season, has a solid intellectual understanding of the scheme from the perspective of each position on the line. He was successful earlier in the season, when the Falcons had the luxury of a fully-stocked depth chart, coming in as an extra blocker. Ryan Schraeder wasn't great last season at right tackle, but he would have the benefit of playing next to a much stronger right guard this season. Let Schraeder take over at right tackle for now and bring Carimi in as an extra blocker when appropriate to help take some pressure off the left side.
Matt Ryan is exceedingly tough, but he can't keep taking hits like he has over the past few games. While it may not seem like it for this Falcons team, things can always get worse. Nobody wants to see T.J. Yates under center for the Falcons. The team has to adjust to the reality of their offensive line as it stands today and make changes to accommodate the weaknesses.