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The Falcons will be tested in the trenches versus Washington

After improvement in Week 3, will the Falcons offensive line come crashing back down to Earth or Rise Up against a formidable Washington front?

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off their first win of the season, the Atlanta Falcons will need to pass another critical test in the trenches to get another one on Sunday when they square off against the Washington Football Team.

Historically we have all observed the trend of defenses that can control the line of scrimmage in their matchups with the Falcons having a lot of success beating them. It is a pet peeve of many a Falcon fan that this trend has existed seemingly forever.

For all of quarterback Matt Ryan’s time in Atlanta, their offense has mostly centered on getting the ball into the hands of their top playmakers. And that was especially true when Julio Jones was the man for the past decade.

Slowing down Jones in the past was often less about locking him down in coverage, and more about preventing Ryan from getting him the ball due to the latter lying on his back on the turf.

Now with Jones gone, the Falcons are struggling to establish a core identity on offense under new head coach Arthur Smith. What about their offense should opposing defenses be losing sleep over scheming to stop?

Is it slowing down Calvin Ridley? Kyle Pitts? Despite pulling off a necessary win against the New York Giants in Week 3, neither Ridley nor Pitts shined.

Right now, it seems like the most dangerous weapon in the Falcons offensive arsenal is a simple check down to Cordarrelle Patterson!

But in all seriousness, perhaps the reason why the Falcons were able to win this past Sunday despite the inconsistencies from their top playmakers owes a lot to the fact that the Giants did not dominate them in the trenches as thoroughly as Philadelphia and Tampa Bay had done in the Falcons’ first two games of the year.

This weekend, we will wonder where Washington fits in. Will we see an outcome closer to the first two weeks or that of last week?

Certainly, the potential is there for Washington to wreak havoc up front for the Falcons. While the Football Team has struggled to generate sacks, with just six through three games, generating pressure has not been a problem. After a quiet Week 1 when Los Angles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was the least pressured passer in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, things improved for Washington thereafter.

PFF data puts Daniel Jones (New York Giants) and Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills) both among the top six most-pressured passers in the NFL in each of the past two weeks when facing Washington.

However unfortunately for Washington, both Jones and Allen were superb at handling that pressure, earning top grades in that regard per PFF.

Of course, facing Atlanta represents a golden opportunity for Washington’s pass rush to get back on track thanks to the former’s struggles handling pressure.

Is Ryan on the decline?

Unlike Jones and Allen, Ryan has been among the least effective quarterbacks in the NFL thus far when pressured. According to PFF’s grades, Ryan currently ranks 36th among quarterbacks when under fire this year.

This has been a trend as of late with Ryan, leading to concerns about his impending decline. The past two seasons have seen Ryan grade out as below average when under pressure after several seasons of being among PFF’s highest-graded passers in the same situations.

It seems that having two new starters on the offensive line, a new head coach and play-caller in Smith, and losing his favorite security blanket in Jones has concocted a deadly combination, compounding and magnifying whatever issues Ryan was dealing with in recent years.

Last week, PFF charted Ryan with a league-leading three “turnover-worthy passes.” San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was the only other quarterback to match that total in Week 3, resulting in increased discussion over whether that team should make a quarterback change.

That won’t be the case (yet) in Atlanta. Ryan won’t be looking over his shoulder worried about Josh Rosen taking his job as Garoppolo will when it comes to Trey Lance.

However, the longer we continue to see Ryan and the rest of the offense in this ongoing malaise, the faster the day approaches where Ryan will have to start glancing behind him, potentially as early as next April’s draft.

And this week’s matchup against Washington isn’t likely to do him any favors, since the former’s front presents some formidable challenges to the Falcons’ group of blockers.

Less than ideal challenges for Falcons front

Embattled rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield made improvements in Week 3, but is likely to face an even bigger challenge this week against Jonathan Allen, who leads Washington with three sacks.

Washington also has Montez Sweat, their next best pass rusher. While fellow edge-rusher Chase Young gets most of the media hype and attention, Sweat is the one that consistently produces.

PFF looks at something called a “true pass set” to evaluate both offensive linemen and pass-rushers. It involves the elimination of screens, play-action passes, rollouts and plays that feature very long or very short times to throw, to better indicate how players perform when scheme and other factors are mitigated.

After a 2020 season that saw Sweat rank third among edge-rushers in “win percentage” on true pass sets, he’s continuing to play at a high level this year. His 90.5 pass-rushing grade on true pass sets so far this season matches that of Myles Garrett, who is coming off a 4.5-sack performance in Week 3.

Washington has not been shy about flipping sides between Sweat and Young to capitalize on more favorable matchups, but it has mostly led to Sweat spending about 68 percent of his pass-rushing snaps on the right side of the defense, which faces the left side of the offense.

This week, that puts him on an island against Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews. Now Matthews is far and away the Falcons best pass protector, with his PFF grade in a true pass set ranking among the top six for left tackles.

However, that doesn’t mean that a player like Sweat cannot present a difficult challenge for him. Generally, the pass-rushers that have given Matthews the most trouble throughout his career have been those that have an effective bull rush. Sweat’s combination of ridiculous length and quickness allows him to be very effective at converting speed into power.

And then of course there’s the much-ballyhooed Young, who’s win percentage on true pass sets is much closer to league average in comparison to Sweat. But with Sweat lining up facing Matthews, it does give Young the more favorable matchup this weekend against Falcons right tackle Kaleb McGary.

If Matthews is stalwart when measured by his grade in true pass sets, McGary has been his opposite this year. His grade puts him among the six worst right tackles. In contrast to Matthews, McGary’s Achilles Heel in pass protection tends to stem when he faces speed. That’s a trait that neither Young nor Sweat are lacking.

And we haven’t mentioned Washington’s other interior pass-rushers in Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis and their potential matchups against Falcons center Matt Hennessy and right guard Chris Lindstrom, respectively.

Long story short, each of the Falcon blockers potentially could have their hands full on Sunday against this Washington rush. And if we see a repeat of the same issues that have already plagued the offensive line thus far in 2021, I suspect there’s a high probability that on Sunday Washington starts racking up the sack numbers that have thus far proven so elusive.

Adjusting the scheme

Of course, the Falcons aren’t mere sitting ducks. There are certain things that Arthur Smith can do to scheme around to help mitigate these issues. One should involve chipping Sweat and Young, especially when either is lined up against McGary as a way to slow down their speed off the edge.

But if only it were so simple and easy. There’s a give and a take with chipping. The give is obviously helping out your blockers, but the take comes from the positions involved in those chips, which typically are the tight end and running backs, not having as much impact in the passing game.

Basically, the more involved Pitts, Patterson, and/or Hayden Hurst are involved in supporting the line, the less involved they are in supporting Ryan as passing targets. Giving Ryan less options to throw to certainly is not ideal for enhancing the Falcons’ already struggling passing attack.

Should the Falcons ask for greater contributions from their tight ends and running backs in keeping Ryan upright, it puts more pressure on their wide receivers to pick up the slack.

Ridley is certainly capable of being a reliable go-to option much like Jones was in the past, we just haven’t consistently seen it yet this year. Fortunately, this is a promising opportunity for Ridley against Washington this week, given their struggles in the secondary.

Smith calling more rollouts and play-action passes could also help slow down Washington’s rush. After all, PFF credited Josh Allen with 174 yards off play-action in Week 3, the third-highest total of any passer this past Sunday.

But the bottom line remains that whether we’re talking about Smith, Ridley, Ryan, the offensive line, or the rest of the receivers, everyone across the board is going to have to step up if the Falcons are going to overcome this Washington front. Otherwise, it’s likely to wind up just another tally mark on the overly long list of games where the Falcons have been dominated in the trenches and lost.

Does the Week 3 improvement from the Falcons offensive line give you more confidence that they’ll step up to the plate? Or do you think that unit will come tumbling back down to Earth against Washington?