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Pass protection holds key to Falcons offense continuing to crush opponents

The Falcons will face bigger challenges in terms of opposing pass rushes over next few weeks. Will it slow down their offense?

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons offense has been flying high the past few weeks, thanks in large part due to the dominance of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. His efforts have led to a combined 16 catches for 282 yards and a touchdown over the past two games, and the talent that made him the best player available at the top of this past year’s draft was on full display.

In that span, we’ve also seen quarterback Matt Ryan play some of the best football he’s shown in recent years. His passer rating over the past two games has been 103.0, but when he’s targeted Pitts that has jumped to 137.3. That means when Ryan has targeted any other Falcons receiver, his rating has been a pedestrian 87.7.

That strongly indicates that the Falcons' future opponents will probably gameplan to stop Pitts. But of course, based on his recent performances, that is easier said than done.

Last week against the Miami Dolphins, Pitts was practically uncoverable even with the combined efforts of Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, Eric Rowe, and Jason McCourty. Given that caliber of defenders, the Dolphins were among the NFL teams best equipped to slow down Pitts and still could not stop his monster 163-yard output.

This suggests that upcoming opponents like the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, regardless of how much confidence they may have in players like Jeremy Chinn and Marshon Lattimore, should not trust completely in their coverage against the Falcons unicorn of a tight end.

Saints and Panthers’ pass rushers have thwarted Falcons over the years

However, unlike Miami, the Panthers and Saints will likely try and compensate with generating pressure to best prevent Pitts from getting the ball, since it’ll be even harder for Ryan to deliver passes if he’s on his backside.

We know from past matchups that such a strategy has worked handily in the Saints' favor. There has been at least one game in each of the past four seasons where the Falcons have given up five or more sacks to the Saints.

In his last eight outings against New Orleans, Ryan has been sacked a total of 36 times on 342 dropbacks. That’s a sack rate of 10.5 percent. For context, in 2018 when Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was dropped 62 times, he was sacked at a rate of 10.9 percent. Essentially, whenever the Falcons face the Saints recently, their pass protection is historically bad.

Yet they won’t face the Saints until Week 9, and the Panthers still represent a significant challenge in the meantime. Fortunately, the Falcons offensive line has held up better against Carolina in recent years than they have against New Orleans. Gone are the days where Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were wreaking havoc in the Falcons backfield.

Yet in 2020, the Panthers were still able to get effective pressure on Ryan in their matchups, which contributed to a less efficient performance from Ryan in those games.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was pressured on 40 percent of his dropbacks in his two outings against the Panthers a year ago, while over the course of the other six games to start the year, he was pressured on just 27 percent of dropbacks.

Ryan’s passer rating while under pressure against the Panthers was a measly 23.3, compared to 90.3 in those other six games to start the 2020 season. That indicates that the extra pressure was effective at slowing down the Falcons quarterback. Of course, the absence of his preferred security blanket in Julio Jones during that first Carolina game likely contributed to some of those struggles.

But the point should be clear that if Carolina can generate reliable pressure as they did a year ago, it could again stymie the Falcons offense this weekend. And of course, spearheading that effort will be Panthers edge-rushers Brian Burns and Haason Reddick. Both players got off to great starts this year, combining for 7.5 of the team’s 14 sacks during their 3-0 start.

The Panthers' pass rush has gone quiet over the past month during their four-game losing streak with just four total sacks. Yet, Burns and Reddick have accounted for three of them. Of course, they would love to repeat their early-season success with a big day against the Falcons on Sunday.

Keeping Ryan clean will be paramount to preventing the Falcons' offensive momentum from being derailed over the next few games. And the team only has to look back to last week’s win against the Dolphins to help implement a successful strategy.

Falcons made proper adjustments to reserve tackle being in lineup

Last week, the Falcons started backup Jason Spriggs at right tackle. It was clear from rewatching the film after the game that the team made a concerted effort to give Spriggs as much help as possible against the Dolphins' best pass-rusher in Emmanuel Ogbah.

Spriggs consistently got help with chips from tight ends, running backs, and receivers whenever the Falcons offense featured their straight dropback passing game to help slow down Ogbah and others.

The few times the Falcons didn’t put a tight end on his side of the line often indicated that the team was either going to run the ball, dial up a play-action pass, or were planning a quick throw to keep Spriggs from being overwhelmed.

It proved effective for the most part, with Spriggs holding his own by allowing just one quarterback hit and two hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. That doesn’t account for the lone sack the Falcons allowed to Miami, which came on one of the few instances early in the game where the Falcons didn’t give Spriggs help and a Dolphins blitzer was able to blow past him for a sack.

The Falcons should implement a similar strategy this week versus the Panthers even with starter Kaleb McGary returning to the lineup after a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

McGary has had his fair share of struggles against the Panthers over the past two seasons. Per PFF, he’s given up three sacks and six hurries across four games against Carolina. That’s not an awful stat-line by any means, but it could be considerably worse when you account for the relatively few instances where he’s faced Burns in that span.

PFF data doesn’t give us access to the exact number of instances in which the two have gone toe-to-toe over the years, but we can infer based on how many times Burns has rushed the quarterback from the left side of the defense, thus facing the right side of the offensive line.

Over the years, Burns has rushed from the left side against the Falcons just 18 times, against McGary’s total of 152 pass-blocking snaps. On those 18 reps, Burns has generated one sack and a total of four pressures. Not an eye-popping total at face value, but if you were able to extrapolate that over a large sample it would be extremely impressive.

With Burns averaging about 15 snaps this year rushing from the left side, McGary will have his work cut out for him. Not to mention, the vast majority of Reddick’s 6.5 sacks have come while rushing from the left side. Both are matchups that have the potential to be exploited by Carolina.

A tale of two tackles

The Falcons should adopt Spriggs-like rules to try and slow down both Panthers rushers. We know that the team is comfortable leaving left tackle Jake Matthews on an island in pass protection on the opposite side, thus allowing them the leeway to slant things in McGary’s direction this week.

Matthews has rewarded the Falcons thus far with that confidence, although of course Burns and Reddick will be challenging. PFF looks at true pass sets, which try to remove screens, play-action passes, rollouts, and other passes with abnormal amounts of times to throw to really gauge how effective an offensive lineman is at handling scenarios in pass protection that aren’t slanted in his favor.

Among offensive tackles, Matthews currently ranks fourth in the NFL in terms of pass-blocking efficiency in true pass sets. His PFF pass-blocking grade in such scenarios is the best among left tackles in the NFL.

Meanwhile, McGary ranks 49th among 79 tackles that have had at least 75 pass-blocking snaps this year. His grade ranks 67th. Although in fairness to McGary, in this particular metric, the majority of the league’s starting right tackles have grades in the bottom half of the rankings. While there has been a bigger push in recent years to place left and right tackles on equal footing, it’s still clear that the majority of teams still place their best pass-protectors on one side versus the other.

The bottom line is the Falcons can’t enter this Panthers game expecting McGary to hold up on an island in the same way that Matthews can against these rushers. Thus, the coaching staff should try their best to give McGary as much help as possible as a way to keep Ryan upright.

And if they can accomplish that task, there should be little keeping Ryan, Pitts, and the rest of the Falcons offense from maintaining their momentum and continuing to fly them to potential victories against upcoming opponents.

Do you think the Falcons pass protection will be able to hold up this weekend against the Panthers as well as in the future? And if so, do you think that will spur the Falcons to victory?