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Lingering issues in the trenches haunt the Falcons again on Thanksgiving

The Falcons offseason plan of putting most of their resources into improving the offensive line has blown up in their face.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When assessing both teams on paper, it was difficult to see how the Falcons were going to remain competitive against the Saints. Julio Jones was unable to play due to a shoulder injury. With Austin Hooper already sidelined, it left Matt Ryan with Calvin Ridley and a variety of receivers he doesn’t fully trust. To face one of the best teams in the NFL on a short week is a tall order in itself. To do it without two of your star weapons, along with coming off a grueling beating four days ago, is a nightmare waiting to happen. While there is plenty to be disappointed about, the Falcons managed to defy the odds to some extent.

Younghoe Koo turning into the league’s onside kick specialist will go down as one of the biggest highlights of the season. In a huge divisional matchup, two of the Falcons’ best defensive players were outstanding. Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones made plays all over the field. The continuous progress of Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield is encouraging for the future, especially against one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. Russell Gage and Christian Blake made some impressive individual plays. Even given how well the defense held up and how well young receivers fared under difficult circumstances, it wasn’t enough in another humbling divisional defeat.

Another catastrophic showing from the offensive line

After last season’s Thanksgiving defeat to New Orleans, most assumed the Falcons couldn’t be any worse up front. They were going to move on from a rapidly declining Ryan Schraeder, and not relying on backup talent like Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland could only help them. The offensive line diminished from a top-ten caliber unit into one of the worst units in the league within a year. By spending an entire offseason investing in the offensive line, the Falcons were bound to improve from last year’s calamitous showing.

Those expectations haven’t been met in the slightest.

Ryan was sacked six times and endured 13 hits on 52 dropbacks against Tampa Bay. Four days later, the franchise quarterback took nine sacks and 13 hits on 59 drop backs, per ESPN. It’s one of the most punishing weeks a quarterback has ever experienced. The instability across the offense is noticeably affecting Ryan’s play.

Because he’s anticipating pressure on nearly every play, Ryan is becoming jittery in the pocket. There are moments where he is quickly looking to get the ball out regardless of whether pressure is coming. Sensing pressure without knowing if pressure is there is a bad sign for any quarterback. It’s also a bad sign for the current state of the offensive line.

The offensive line held up fairly well in the first half. Some of their success can be attributed to Dirk Koetter using more max protection formations, while also incorporating more screens and play action concepts into the game plan. Once they had to start chasing the game from behind, everything began to unravel. Kaleb McGary completely fell apart following three quarters of solid play. It can be argued that Koetter should have done more to slide the protection in helping him against Cameron Jordan. What can’t be disputed is that McGary has been a major liability in pass protection nearly all season.

According to Next Gen Stats, Marcus Davenport and Jordan combined for 12 pressures and six sacks. A few sacks were from Ryan’s inability to get the ball out. Other sacks came from Jordan beating McGary around the edge without much resistance. The rookie right tackle’s poor technique and slow feet have been exploited over the past few months. Although Jake Matthews had a better game last night, there is still a growing frustration thanks to him not building off his finest season in 2018. Matthews’ play is at the bottom of their list up front, however. The misevaluation and personnel usage at guard remains as the most troubling part of the Falcons’ offensive line conundrum.

Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff will be culpable for their inability to address the most glaring weakness on the roster. While Chris Lindstrom should eventually be the right guard they’ve needed for years, their other investments have been massively disappointing. James Carpenter’s lack of awareness, foot speed, and balance has resulted in blown up plays and costly penalties. He has been harshly benched, but Jamon Brown’s problems in pass protection have contributed to the offensive line getting manhandled. The decision to bench him for Schweitzer makes little sense, given Schweitzer’s talent level as someone who mostly struggled in over 30 starts. In the end, the offseason plan to protect Ryan and add more strength up front to help in short-yardage situations has been nothing more than a massive flop.

Justifiable concern about Ryan

The odds were certainly against Ryan going into this game. With the pressure mounting and lack of reliable weapons around him, he was always bound to take risks. There were going to be a few questionable decisions based on needing to elevate the receivers around him. What should be more noted is how Ryan missed a few high-percentage big play opportunities. Missing a wide-open Ridley in the end zone on fourth down ended up being a game-changing error. His painfully under thrown deep ball to Ridley on the next drive was shocking. Fortunately for him, Eli Apple’s inability to locate the ball resulted in a huge pass interference penalty.

Ryan is one of the most resilient quarterbacks in the league. It wouldn’t have been a controversial decision for him to come out of the game after fumbling on a scramble. Instead, the former MVP didn’t back down and kept pushing for the upset win. There are still reasons to be worried about Ryan. He doesn’t look comfortable behind this offensive line, nor does he seem to trust his receivers. Koetter’s predictable, outdated offense is putting added pressure on him as well.

Ryan doesn’t appear to be moving as well as he once did either. All of these problems culminated in what was one of his worst games of the season. From getting stiff-armed into another state to not recognizing the underneath defender, both interceptions were moments that will be prominent on lowlight reels for years to come. An extended break couldn’t come at a better time for him.

Non-existent pass rush

For the second consecutive game, the defensive line failed to put the opposing quarterback under much pressure. While Jarrett was excellent against the run and showed flashes as a pass rusher, there isn’t much else that can be said about the defensive line. Only Jones managed to hit Drew Brees on a well-timed delayed blitz on third down. What many feared to be a two-game anomaly is proving to be accurate. The Falcons’ defensive line is still lacking in talent across the board.

Adrian Clayborn is a valuable piece to any defensive line. For him to be a team’s most consistent edge pass rusher isn’t a recipe for success. It’s difficult to say how much Takkarist McKinley’s shoulder injury is affecting him. Based on how many snaps he played last night, the third-year pass rusher appears to be healthy enough to play a major role. His lack of impact, along with Vic Beasley failing to generate pressure has allowed quarterbacks sufficient time to either throw downfield or find openings in the intermediate area of the field. Not being able to disrupt opposing offenses with a four man rush has cost the Falcons in countless games over the years. It cost them once again in a game that could have been far worse, if Jared Cook and Alvin Kamara didn’t drop key passes.

Looking Ahead

When the Falcons last had time off, they made changes across the coaching staff with Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich taking over play calling duties. Will they look to make personnel changes? Starting Schweitzer over Brown was one change. Could actual promising young players like Matt Gono and Deadrin Senat receive opportunities? Does Quinn look to make these changes in what appears to be his last month as head coach?

There should be more emphasis on seeing what younger players can offer rather continuing to rely on underachieving veteran talent. A home game against the Panthers should prove to be a decent challenge. At this point in what is another lost season, they might as well give more opportunities to players with something to prove rather than those who consistently underwhelm.