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Falcons are remaking their offensive line in 2019, but not their scheme

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The signings of James Carpenter and Jamon Brown represent a significant shift in offensive line philosophy for the Falcons, but Atlanta—with some minor tweaks—will continue to run the zone blocking scheme in 2019.

Divisional Round - Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There has been a lot of speculation among fans recently about the direction of the Falcons’ rushing attack. The signings of James Carpenter and Jamon Brown—two offensive guards who don’t necessarily match the prototype of the players Atlanta sought after under Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian—have brought up a lot of questions. Clearly, the team is seeking to get bigger along the offensive line. But what does that mean for the scheme, and for the Falcons’ offense as a whole?

Under Shanahan and Sarkisian, it was pretty clear that Atlanta valued athleticism above all else from their offensive linemen. In 2015, that system worked well for running the ball but not much else. In 2016, with the addition of Alex Mack and Chris Chester playing well, we saw just how effective the system could be. However, under Sarkisian in 2017 and 2018, the Falcons offensive line was a constant issue. The running game rarely got going and the pass protection was lousy, to say the least.

It’s hard to say if the size of the offensive line had anything to do with that. After all, we’ve seen virtually all approaches to offensive line building work at some point in the NFL. That is, unless you’re Tom Cable in Seattle. Regardless, the Falcons have decided to invest in larger offensive linemen in 2019. James Carpenter (6’5, 320) and Jamon Brown (6’6, 340) are clearly a significant change from 2018 starters Andy Levitre (6’2, 305) and Brandon Fusco (6’4, 306).

This shift in philosophy extends to the players the Falcons are looking at in the draft, as well. It appears that Atlanta is focusing their scouting on OTs, with the possibility of also adding a developmental center later in the draft. Take a look at the top names the team has met with:

  • OT Andre Dillard: 6’5, 315
  • OT Cody Ford: 6’4, 329
  • OT Tytus Howard: 6’5, 322
  • OT Jawaan Taylor: 6’5, 312

All are bigger than the typical OL whom the Falcons targeted from 2015-2018—albeit only by a few pounds in some cases—but all also possess the all-important characteristic that the team covets: plus athleticism. The same goes for Carpenter and Jamon Brown, who are bigger but also have the requisite mobility to succeed in the zone blocking scheme.

So why do so many fans believe that Atlanta is moving away from the zone blocking scheme in 2019? Nothing the team has said would indicate such a change. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has run both zone and power schemes during his coaching career.

Quinn additionally emphasized the athletic aspect of Brown and Carpenter’s game during an interview at the NFL league meetings, and also clarified that the Falcons’ would not be changing their blocking scheme outside of some “tweaks”.

With bigger offensive linemen on the interior (and possibly at RT), Atlanta is likely to add more inside zone runs to their offense. But I believe the change in “prototypical” personnel has more to do with a change in philosophy for Dan Quinn than any sort of schematic shift. There was an interesting quote from Quinn at the 2019 NFL Combine which actually gives some context to these changes. The Falcoholic’s own Jeanna Thomas wrote about it earlier in the month, but here are the relevant bits as Quinn talks about evaluating college offensive linemen:

“I would say what makes it difficult at times, in college they are playing against maybe another defensive lineman of similar size and strength,” Quinn said. “You’ll see that the people that are playing in the NFL, there are some freaky, either fast, or strong or explosive people. You had better be able to match up with these guys from a strength and athletic ability standpoint. For those guys, it’s a small group that can handle that job...Having that balance of strength and athleticism at offensive line, I think that’s a real difficult task to see. From the college side you are comparing them against NFL players. Quite often the guy who is a really good college offensive or defensive lineman and has good technique, maybe he lacks either the length, arm length, bulk or size or athleticism to block certain players.”

Quinn seems to be remarking on one of the big challenges of scouting offensive linemen for the zone blocking scheme. It’s generally true that smaller OL will be more athletic, and therefore more successful in the mobility-focused zone blocking scheme. In college, that lack of ideal size isn’t as much of an issue—the players generally have good technique and understanding of leverage, allowing them to handle larger defenders without a problem. Plus, they’ll usually be more effective at blocking the lighter, more athletic defenders.

However, in the NFL, the size mismatch can grow to pretty ridiculous levels. NFL players are, after all, some of the biggest and best athletes in the entire world. Using the zone blocking scheme, you can often mitigate some of these size disparities with technique and double teams. But there are still times where raw size can overwhelm linemen—particularly depth players who aren’t as sound with their technique. We saw it regularly with Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland in 2018, and in short-yardage situations in general.

But finding larger offensive linemen with the requisite athleticism to thrive in the zone blocking scheme—I like to call them “scheme-diverse” or “dual-threat” OL—is pretty difficult, particularly if you’re not willing to spend premium picks or cap space. Under Quinn and Dimitroff, the Falcons have demonstrated that they’re totally unwilling to draft interior offensive linemen on the first two days of the draft—they haven’t done so since C Peter Konz in 2012 (second round), and the only other one taken by Dimitroff was G Mike Johnson in 2010 (third round).

To Atlanta’s credit, they have been willing to invest significant draft capital and cap space into OTs and centers. Jake Matthews has been a phenomenal addition from the draft (and, coincidentally, the last OT taken prior Day 3 by the Falcons) and Alex Mack has arguably been the best free agent signing of Dimitroff’s tenure. Their “MO” has always been to invest at LT, C, and RT, and go cheap at guard. That worked fine when you were happy taking smaller, zone-scheme linemen—but it’s a lot more difficult when you’re chasing a prototype that every team in the NFL is interested in.

With James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, the Falcons managed to find a way to make it work. Both are examples of “scheme-diverse” guards, but both were available on reasonable starter contracts. How did they manage that? By targeting players that were either coming off poor seasons (Carpenter) or developing players that were simply caught between teams (Brown).

To be clear, neither are likely to be slam-dunk additions like Alex Mack or even Andy Levitre. Although they are bigger, I’m not sure we can expect a huge uptick in rushing production. What we should expect is for Carpenter and Brown to provide more stability in pass protection while also giving the Falcons a more reliable short-yardage rushing attack. If that doesn’t happen, I think the team will be fairly disappointed—as will we.

The team is transitioning to a more “scheme-diverse” prototype on the offensive line, but don’t expect that to translate to significant schematic changes. I think Quinn was simply tired of seeing his interior offensive line trapped in size mismatches, and decided it was time to give his offense a little more “beef” up front.

One thing is certain, however: Quinn and Dimitroff aren’t done remaking this offensive line. Whether the pick comes early or late, expect the Falcons to add an offensive tackle to either supplant or compete with Ty Sambrailo. We’ve heard the team say repeatedly that fixing the OL was a priority—now we have to wait and see how serious they were about it.

What are your thoughts on the Falcons’ offensive line changes? Do you expect improvements to the pass protection and/or run blocking with James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in the fold? Do you think Atlanta will still add a right tackle in the 2019 NFL Draft?