The Falcons surprised everyone last year by shaking up the entire offensive line between the last preseason game and Week 1 of the regular season. It was an unorthodox move for a unit that’s so dependent on chemistry to succeed. This year the team goes into the season with much more continuity. The only new guy is Alex Mack, a Pro Bowl-caliber center who’s been in Atlanta for the entire offseason.
"Last year was a little uncomfortable feeling this time," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "We had just traded for Andy Levitre a few days prior to what today is, so you didn’t really know what was going to happen until the game."
Atlanta’s moves just before the start of the regular season last year raised some eyebrows. Gone was Joe Hawley, the team’s presumed starting center. Taking over in the middle was Mike Person, a career guard with no previous experience at the position.
The team tried to trade Jon Asamoah, a veteran guard, but Asamoah didn’t pass his physical. The Falcons put him on injured reserve and traded a sixth round pick to Tennessee for left guard Levitre, who was just okay with the Titans but had flourished in the zone blocking scheme in Buffalo.
This year, the Falcons go into the regular season having upgraded the center position, and the guards and tackles are entering their second season of playing alongside each other. It’s a much more comfortable situation to be in for Atlanta.
The makeshift unit initially surprised everyone in 2015
You don’t just shake up your entire offensive line right before the season begins and expect it to go well, yet somehow for the Falcons, it seemed fine for the first few weeks.
"Last year, adding Andy into the mix so late, he did a terrific job of gelling with the guys to make the whole thing work," head coach Dan Quinn said. "He and Chester helped a lot coming in."
Perhaps it can be attributed to opposing defenses’ unfamiliarity with Atlanta’s personnel in Shanahan’s scheme. Maybe it was the level of competition they faced through those first few weeks. Whatever the contributing factors may have been, the Falcons offensive line looked cohesive and effective early in the 2015 season. The Falcons jumped out to a 6-1 start, with the team’s success on the field mirroring the early play of the line.
Then they fell apart
Here’s the thing — if your center can’t accurately and adequately shotgun snap a football, it’s a problem.
Tackle play remained pretty consistent throughout the season, with Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder not only holding their own, but doing their best to compensate for inconsistencies on the interior line. Andy Levitre and Chris Chester consistently struggled, and Mike Person looked to be completely out of his element.
Person was an okay blocker, but his snaps were often off in terms of timing and accuracy, which directly contributed to some of the offensive struggles last season. His timing issues also threw off the play of Levitre and Chester. When a team lacks a consistent anchor at center, the whole line is impacted.
The continuity should make a difference this season
The Falcons head into this matchup with the Bucs feeling much more confident about the starting offensive line. That continuity at guard and tackle as well as the addition of a quality veteran center should make a difference.
"For four out of our five guys, they played all season next to each other last year, which is big, and then you add in a guy that’s as experienced as Alex, and I think that makes us really, really solid up front," Matt Ryan said.
Because the starting unit wasn’t decided until after the preseason, days before the Falcons faced the Eagles in Week 1, the line didn’t have the luxury of months of OTAs and minicamp and training camp to acclimate to each other.
Shanahan said that time together for this year’s offensive line has made a huge difference.
"It helps, because of all the practice," Shanahan said. "You’re practicing with guys you’re going to play with in a game."
Alex Mack was a fundamentally important addition
Mack is an experienced veteran center and the type of player the Falcons knew they needed to upgrade the line play this year.
"Going into the offseason, we knew there were some changes that we wanted to make, and fortunately for us, Alex was a big part of that," Dan Quinn said.
Mack was easily the most talented, reliable center available this offseason, and the Falcons made him a priority, signing him to a five-year, $45 million contract after he opted out of his contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Although Mack is the new kid on the block on this offensive line, he’s been here for the entire offseason, which makes a difference. His veteran experience and his familiarity with Shanahan’s scheme from Shanahan’s time in Cleveland also helps.
"We played with the same guys all last year, and we’ve added Mack so we’ve got one new guy in the group," Shanahan said. "But at least we’ve had him throughout OTAs and training camp. So it definitely makes it a lot more comfortable going into the game."
Mack, a three-time Pro Bowler, feels comfortable with the cohesiveness of this line heading into the season.
"I think we’ve got a really tight group coming along," Mack said. "They have a lot of experience together, and I think I fit in pretty well ... a good group of guys, willing to work hard. I’m super-proud to be part of this group."
Chemistry and communication should be improved
The line did its best to develop chemistry in a very short time prior to Week 1 last season, but with those kinds of last-minute changes, there was only so much they could do.
Levitre said that the level of comfort the line feels heading into this season is much higher than it was heading into Week 1 last year.
"I think we’ve all been here long enough to be comfortable and all be on the same page and be able to communicate," Levitre said. "We’ve had a chance to develop a great relationship in that room. We all get along really well, so I think that really helps when you get on the field in terms of playing with your brother next to you and all being on the same page and it gives us a good reason to play harder for each other."
Ryan said the difference in comfort with each other and the positive impact that has on the line’s communication is obvious.
"I feel like they work really well together, which is critical on the offensive line," Ryan said. "Their communication is really, really good, and I expect those guys to play really well."
For Quinn, the positive part about the continuity along the line, coupled with the whole offseason for Mack to get acclimated, has been the unit’s ability to get on the same page.
He’s looking forward to seeing what they can do this season.
"A whole year together with that group, the familiarity, the standard that they work with, it’s been not just a noticeable improvement, but a real difference in their attitude and the way that they play," Quinn said. "Yeah, we’re really excited about that unit."
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There’s reason to be optimistic about the Falcons offensive line heading into the season. After several seasons of sub-standard line play, though, it’s not a surprise if Falcons fans adopt a wait-and-see approach.
Levitre noted that the line still has room to improve.
"I think, obviously, we still have room to grow, but I think we’re a good, hardworking group of guys and we’re willing to put forth that effort to continue to grow throughout the season," Levitre said.
Still, these players’ experience, both in general in the NFL and with each other, should help. Having a quality veteran presence anchoring the line in the middle is a big factor, too. The time these five players have spent around each other, learning each other’s timing, getting comfortable with communication, should make a positive difference on the field this season.
Let’s hope it does.