The 2016 Falcons offense is arguably the best that this franchise has ever seen, and is one of the best offenses in the NFL this year. This early success has lead to Matt Ryan being discussed as an early MVP candidate, and the league fawning over the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. That doesn’t even touch on Julio Jones, Jacob Tamme and the additional impact of guys like Aldrick Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and rookie Austin Hooper.
Yet, at the center of all of this is an offensive line that has quietly become one of the best in the league. Falcons fans have clamored for the team to assemble a good team “in the trenches” for several years now. It appears that has come to fruition, and the results have been impressive.
Centers are underrated
At the center of this transformation is Alex Mack, the free agent center we signed away from the Cleveland Browns. Mack is a 3 time Pro-Bowler and an All-Pro who has instantly stabilized the interior of the offensive line. The Falcons struggled through 2015 with Mike Person and James Stone playing Center, with predictable results. While most fans focus on the poor snaps both Stone and Person were prone to, there was so much more that went wrong.
On multiple occasions, it was clear that the communication on the offensive line was lacking. We repeatedly saw free-runners get to Ryan, as Levitre and Chester missed assignments that an experienced (and good) center would have pointed out. This also lead to a deterioration of the performance of the line, as players like Levitre and Matthews began piling up penalties as the season progressed. By contrast, the offensive line only has 5 holding penalties so far in 2016.
Mack has brought a level of competency to the line that was sorely lacking in 2015. The communication in the line is clearly improved, with Matthews and Levitre looking far more comfortable in particular. On top of it all, Mack is clearly a very good run blocker and pass blocker, which has directly lead to the big start for the Falcons running and passing game.
Next to Michael Turner, Alex Mack may be one of the best free agent signings the Falcons have ever made. He’s been absolutely critical to the early success in 2016.
I’ve read fans complain over the years that the team has not invested in the offensive line. One quick look at the 2016 unit shows that those days are over. Going by just draft position, this is one of the most “talented” lines in the league. Jake Matthews and Alex Mack were both first rounders. Andy Levitre and Chris Chester were both second rounders. Only Ryan Schraeder doesn’t fall in that category, as a late-blooming undrafted free agent.
Fans have had to grit their teeth while watching late-round talent try to stabilize this line over the years. Players like Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes are a distant memory. The Falcons finally put together a group of truly talented offensive lineman and the payoff is evident.
Time to develop
Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder may be one of the best LT/RT duos in the league. It’s easy to take that for granted now, but getting there took patience from this Falcons front-office.
The team saw something they liked in Schraeder when they kept him on the roster back in 2013. It was clear that he was a very raw talent, but the team opted to keep him around and let him develop. Three years later, and Schraeder has turned into one of the best right tackles in the league.
On the other side of the line, Jake Matthews came in with ridiculous expectations from many fans. People wanted Jake to be the next Joe Thomas, but his rookie year was anything but. After making a late switch from right tackle to left tackle, and being injured early in the season, Matthews struggled his entire rookie year. Amazingly, some fans were ready to write him off because of it. His sophomore effort was far better, and after a rough start in 2016, he’s truly settled in and is playing very well once again.
By giving these two players time to develop, the Falcons organization is now reaping the rewards.
Winning in the trenches
Unlike in past years, where the Falcons beat teams through superior skill position talent, this 2016 team is doing it with BOTH skill position players and a very good offensive line. This OL took the run-game right at a stingy Broncos defense and dominated. This OL went right after the fantastic linebacking corps of the Panthers and punched them in the mouth.
While we celebrate this fantastic start to the 2016 season, it’s important to remember that true dominance in the NFL starts from the inside. For the first time in a long time, the Falcons have put together an offensive line that can dominate, and the results have been outstanding.