After ten games, the Falcons are atop the NFC South with a 6-4 record that few fans would have predicted before the season began. Few people would have predicted the offensive explosion from the offense, which has been anchored by improved play on the offensive line. Even with all the accolades, there are still some concerns with this unit.
Alex Mack and the importance of centers
As the 2015 season showed us, the center position is far more important than most of us ever realized. With sub-par play from Mike Person and James Stone for most of the year, the Falcons offense struggled considerably - often with just getting clean snaps to Matt Ryan. After that debacle of a season, the Falcons front office made a move to fix it in a big way: signing free agent veteran Alex Mack to help stabilize this line.
Undoubtedly, Mack has been one of the best free agent signings for the team - maybe ever. He has not only improved the play at center, but it’s clear that his leadership has had an impact on all of the guys on the unit. As a veteran, Mack has also been key in fixing communication issues on the line and making sure everyone is on the same page - taking that burden off of Matt Ryan’s shoulders.
Individually, Mack has been stout in pass protection and an absolute mauler as a run blocker. Everything fans dared hope for has been realized in the Alex Mack signing: which is pretty rare in NFL free agency.
Still room for improvement
Even with the addition of Mack, and the improvement of the play of the offensive line overall, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Chris Chester is already 128 years old and will probably retire after this year. His age has shown this year, though he is still playing competently in most games. Andy Levitre has actually bounced back nicely and is playing at a high level again. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder is solid, but has faced some stiff competition this year and his status as a “top” tackle is probably in question. Jake Matthews has been good in pass protection and figures to be a decent left tackle in a league that is desperate for good play.
Even with Mack’s leadership, this line is still prone to the awful false start and holding penalties, which often sets this offense behind. Against lesser competition, this hasn’t been a big issue, but against stout defensive fronts it has proved to be fatal. Additionally, strong defensive front sevens have gotten the better of this unit, with the Eagles game being the most recent example. If this team is going to make it to the playoffs and compete, they absolutely have to do a better job against tough defensive fronts. If they don’t, an early playoff exit may be in order.
This is a better unit than the one that played in 2015, but it is still a unit that has flaws. It’s clear that the right guard position needs to be addressed in 2017, and Ryan Schraeder will be a free agent after this season. Additionally, the penalties have to be improved upon, especially when going up against formidable defensive units.
This is definitely a top-15 unit, but they are clearly not in the same league with an OL unit like the Dallas Cowboys. For now, though, they have shown they can be “good enough” to help field a top offense in 2016. Given what the 2015 unit looked like, this is an improvement that every Falcons fans should be thrilled with. Let’s hope they finish the year strong and go into 2017 with aspirations to be even better than they are now.