It can’t possibly get any worse than it was last season. That’s one way to describe the current state of the Falcons’ offensive and defensive line. Both lines were consistently manhandled and overwhelmed last season, which led to several abysmal performances. The offensive line couldn’t create anywhere near the same number of holes they did in recent seasons. Not being able to keep a clean pocket for Matt Ryan against above average opposition hindered what should have been one of the most prolific aerial attacks in the league. From Ryan Schraeder’s decline to the instability at the guard position, the offensive line struggled in all aspects as a unit.
The same can be said on the other side of the ball. Replacing Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe was always going to be difficult, especially given the limited cap space. Not adding another edge rusher or capable nose tackle left the defensive line overmatched for most of the season. With Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley failing to make the necessary strides you want from two talented young edge rushers, the Falcons struggled to generate pressure rushing four.
For all the discussion about the Falcons’ offensive firepower and defensive stars returning, major questions remain within the trenches. Only Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Grady Jarrett, and Jack Crawford played at a high level or above expectations last season. That’s nowhere near good enough for any team, let alone one that relies on a specific defensive line rotation. It’s also not good enough for a team that has one of the best centers in the league, along with a left tackle on the cusp of being a top-tier offensive lineman. The Falcons clearly possess the talent to play in January. How much progress they make in the trenches following last season’s debacle will determine if they can be a legitimate contender again. Both lines will need to substantially improve for them to beat the NFC’s best such as the Rams, Saints, and Eagles.
Investing in the offensive line
It wasn’t surprising to see the front office invest heavily in revamping the offensive line. To sign multiple mid-level guards and draft two offensive linemen in the first round was certainly unforeseen. Adding four players capable of starting at three positions does create some confusion. They signed Jamon Brown and James Carpenter to long-term contracts. By drafting Chris Lindstrom in the first round, it’s hard to envision both free agent signings starting this season. Lindstrom has already made a notable impression with his hand placement and footwork in one on one drills. He should provide the stability the Falcons haven’t had at right guard since Harvey Dahl was mauling everyone in sight.
Brown and Carpenter aren’t the only players in a training camp battle on the offensive line. First round pick Kaleb McGary is competing with Ty Sambrailo to start at right tackle. Considering how much the front office gave up to select McGary, most would assume he’ll be given every opportunity to make his mark. Sambrailo’s past struggles in pass protection, particularly against speed rushers, leaves him as an unlikely long-term starting option. Why the front office opted to bring him back remains as a mystery. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that he would be an upgrade over last year’s diminished version of Schraeder.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Falcons’ offensive line. Mack is slowly aging, yet still makes a massive difference as a run blocker and overall leader. Matthews is coming off the best of his career. After having issues against power rushers in previous years, the former first round pick was excellent in pass protection last season. The biggest difference on the offensive line should be receiving (at least) average play at the guard position. This is something the Falcons haven’t had for a full season since 2016. To have two capable guards will work wonders for not only Ryan, but the entire running game. Converting in short-yardage situations proved to be a huge obstacle for the Falcons last season. An interior line of Brown or Carpenter, with Mack and Lindstrom should give them the talent they need to capitalize on favorable scenarios.
Banking on first round talent, old friends, and reinforcements on the defensive line
With all the major investment directed towards the offensive line, it left the Falcons in a slight predicament when trying to add talent on the defensive line. They didn’t have the financial resources to add a big-name free agent or draft capital to select a highly regarded prospect. Securing the long-term future of their best defensive lineman was understandably more important. Jarrett has developed into one of the franchise’s cornerstones. To keep a player of his caliber was integral for their plan of building a well-rounded productive defensive line.
The plan can only come to full fruition if one (or both) of Dan Quinn’s first round edge rushers becomes a true difference maker. McKinley and Beasley were both largely disappointing last season. Although McKinley started the season in terrific fashion, opposing tackles started to nullify him as the season wore on. His inability to develop any signature moves stunted his development. Between improving his overall technique and not being overly reliant on his bull rush, McKinley is more than capable enough of becoming a consistent force. There isn’t as much optimism for Beasley. Similar to McKinley, he relies too much on his physical gifts and hasn’t improved enough from a technical standpoint. Opposing tackles know he can essentially only win off using his explosive first step. If Beasley can’t develop a legitimate counter move and generate more pressure, it’s hard to see him playing for the Falcons in 2020.
Unlike last season, the front office made sure to sign another capable edge rusher. In a very savvy move, Clayborn was brought back to bring some much-needed ferocity and versatility to the defensive line. Veterans like Clayborn and Crawford will be relied upon for their ability to play multiple positions. How Allen Bailey fits into Quinn’s rotation is another thing to monitor during the early stages of the season. Based on his contract and capabilities, you would expect him to play a significant role in their base defense. Deadrin Senat, Tyeler Davison, and Ra’Shede Hageman will have an opportunity to find their niche within a crowded rotation. Senat is the most intriguing out of the three players, after showing glimpses of promise during his rookie year. From holding up against double teams to showing impressive awareness against the run, Senat has the talent to develop into a key contributor on the defensive line.
For all the promising rookies and exciting additions, only a few of these new acquisitions will likely play a considerable role in getting the Falcons back where they belong. How Lindstrom and McGary solidify the right side of the offensive line is going to play a major factor in the Falcons’ prospects of becoming an elite offense again. If they can provide ample pass protection, Ryan will have a huge year throwing to the best wide receiving trio and one of the most promising tight ends in the league. The physicality of Brown or Carpenter should provide the necessary strength to help convert in short-yardage and goal line situations.
It’s not as clear cut on the defensive line. While Clayborn is going to provide maximum effort and violent intentions, the Falcons desperately need McKinley and Beasley to elevate their game. Not having a legitimate pass-rushing threat off the edge will prevent a defense from reaching its true potential. Quinn’s increased emphasis on defensive play calling can only help bring the best out of both young edge rushers. It’ll be fascinating to see if Bailey, Senat, or Davison can become a major asset in base.
Despite their being some uncertainty in the secondary, the Falcons’ biggest question marks lie primarily in the trenches. Both lines were among the worst units in the league last season. It can’t be understated how much they struggled, particularly against playoff-caliber teams. They were unable to run the ball effectively in short-yardage situations. Ryan couldn’t throw downfield as nearly as he wanted. The defense couldn’t get off the field on third down because of how lackluster the pass rush was. These issues were on full display during close defeats and humiliating blowouts. Correcting those shortcomings can only transpire with far better play in the trenches. That’s what makes the performance of both lines so imperative going into 2019.