The Minnesota Vikings have a wonderful defense and some very talented skill position players, but their offensive line is ravaged by injuries and features some very weak starting options. The Carolina Panthers are in a similar boat, having lost Andrew Norwell and now facing injuries of their own. Across the NFL, there are contenders who are either facing injuries or simple ineptitude along the offensive line, putting their season-long success in varying degrees of doubt.
The Falcons, of course, are not immune to that, and we can’t ever pretend that they are. But they are still better-positioned than most teams in their conference, at least on paper, and that’s a major competitive advantage.
Atlanta’s had the same four starters at left tackle, left guard, center and right tackle for each of the last three seasons, and minus some fairly minor health concerns here and there, all four have been healthy. Jake Matthews drives some people crazy with his lapses in pass protection, but he’s an above average tackle, and not a single player at any of those positions is below average. Add in Brandon Fusco, a strong run defender with decent pass protection chops, and you’ve got one of the NFL’s better units.
Then consider that Fusco might just be an upgrade on Wes Schweitzer, who is suddenly getting some run at center for Atlanta and was an 18 game starter a year ago, and you feel even better about the line. That’s saying nothing about Ben Garland, also a very solid stopgap on the interior, or Ty Sambrailo, who can stand upright and block like a human being at tackle. The Falcons don’t boast the best group of linemen in the NFL, but they’re top ten or top five, even.
For an offense loaded with playmakers, that genuinely matters, and Matt Ryan can’t get the ball to any of them if he doesn’t have a little time to drop back and scan the field.
Injury on the interior would be survivable for a couple of weeks, which is why the Falcons are fortunate. Longer than that—or god forbid, a significant injury at tackle—would put the team in hot water right away.
Moving past injury entirely, it’s fair to worry just a little bit about the pass protection. We know Fusco can be a strong run blocker—he showed it against the Chiefs, in particular—but his pass pro skillset is not the team’s strongest. Couple that with the general struggles the team faced against Jacksonville’s elite front four and it’s worth wondering, however idly, how Atlanta’s going to look against some of the NFL’s best front sevens, most of which appear to be concentrated in the NFC.
The bottom line, though, is that the Falcons have set themselves up extremely well along the offensive line. Any major lapses or injuries there could still torpedo this very promising season.