Sunday’s regular-season finale will see the Atlanta Falcons square off against their hated rival, the New Orleans Saints, and has a lot of stakes involved.
For the Saints, it’s obvious. To keep their fleeting postseason hopes alive, they have to win this game. The Falcons, however, are playing for pride, since their playoff hopes ended in last week’s loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Instead, this game will be a proving ground for the team’s offensive line, especially right tackle Kaleb McGary. He will be facing one of the toughest individual matchups against Saints Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan.
A familiar terror
Jordan went sackless in his first five games this year, but in his last 10, he’s generated 11.5 sacks which guided him back to his seventh career Pro Bowl. He’s only seemingly gotten better since being announced to the Pro Bowl, with 7.5 sacks in his past three games and NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors twice. He would tell you that he owes that second-half success to the support and presence of his teammates like Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata, who between them appeared in one game prior to the beginning of Jordan’s impressive sack stretch.
Yet Falcon fans are no stranger to Jordan’s monstrous production, as he has accumulated 22 sacks in 21 career games against the Falcons. If we look at just his last 16 games against the Falcons, Jordan has taken down Matt Ryan a total of 21 times, hit him 36 times, and generated a total of 81 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
For the sake of comparison, the leading candidate for 2021 Defensive Player of the Year honors is Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt, who in 14 games this season has 21.5 sacks, 36 quarterback hits and 56 pressures. Essentially, when it comes to facing the Falcons, Jordan has consistently performed at and above an MVP level.
That has to end this week, and that rests predominantly on the shoulders of McGary. Jordan lines up on the left side of the Saints defense on roughly 80 percent of his pass-rushing snaps this season, according to PFF. When looking at just the last three breakout games, it has been 100 percent of his snaps.
McGary is no stranger to the dominance of Jordan, as the veteran pass-rusher has routinely abused him over the past three years. But McGary has also had some passably competent games as well, where Jordan has been kept in check for the most part.
That was the case in the Falcons’ Week 9 win over the Saints, where Jordan did finish with a sack in that game, but it came rushing from the right side against left tackle Jake Matthews. Meanwhile, Jordan had a relatively quiet two pressures rushing 19 times from the left side against McGary.
McGary needs to have a comparable performance. Giving up one or two pressures to Jordan is a more than acceptable outcome since absolutely shutting down Jordan is nearly impossible. The last time PFF had Jordan blanked in a game was midway through the 2016 season. Jordan has registered at least one pressure in 89 consecutive games since then. While we’d love to see that streak end on Sunday, it’s probably not realistic given what we know about both him and McGary.
Jordan’s prolonged individual dominance has spearheaded his team’s dominance of the Falcons in the trenches for several years. Ryan has been sacked five or more times in one of his matchups against the Saints every season going back four consecutive years, five of the past six years, and six of the past eight years. Given that the Falcons only gave up two sacks to the Saints earlier this season, it would appear they are due for their regularly scheduled catastrophe where they get absolutely owned in the trenches.
Thus it will be important for this Arthur Smith-led team to break the cycle. Not only because it definitively means that there’s a new sheriff in town and the struggles of past Falcon teams against the Saints won’t define the present and future versions. But it would also signal that despite the frequent struggles of this offensive line throughout the 2021 season, that there is hope for this current unit, and specifically McGary.
The knock on the much-maligned McGary has been that he hasn’t shown enough progress from the struggles of his rookie season. That isn’t necessarily true, given good outings earlier this season against pass-rushers like Shaq Barrett, Chase Young, Haason Reddick, and Brian Burns. But those positive Sundays have been interspersed with too many bad ones, most recently being an awful performance against San Francisco’s Nick Bosa in Week 15. That has been leading to the impression that even if McGary has taken a few steps forward, it won’t be long until he reverses course and appears back where he started.
PFF’s true pass set metric, which excludes plays that have less than four rushers, play action, screens, and quick dropbacks to contextualize when blockers aren’t helped by scheme or circumstance, paints a decently positive portrayal of McGary’s 2021 performance. In terms of his pass-blocking efficiency on true pass sets, which measures how many sacks, hits, and hurries per snap, McGary ranks 31st out of the 65 offensive tackles that have had 300 or more pass-blocking snaps this season in terms of his efficiency.
That puts him near the middle of the pack. McGary’s 94.2 efficiency is the same as Patrick Mekari (Baltimore Ravens) and Charles Leno (Washington Football Team), two players that their respective teams deemed worthy of recent contract extensions. McGary’s true-pass set efficiency also barely edges out Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk’s 94.1, the latter being widely considered one of the top right tackles in the NFL.
But his grade on such plays is a lowly 50.8, ranking 50th among that same crop of tackles. What these metrics are reflecting are that the frequency in which McGary gets beaten isn’t higher than average. It indicates that when he does get beat, it’s in very egregious ways where he’ll completely whiff on a block, leading to the considerably lower grade.
A player like Jordan has and will continue to take advantage of that type of inconsistency from McGary. While Jordan isn’t getting any younger at age 32, clearly his production this season shows that a decline is probably not imminent. That makes it important that the Falcons find a right tackle capable of stopping him and other edge-rushers they will face into the future as Smith attempts to build a team capable of setting a physical tone.
Everybody expects that the Falcons will make it a priority to upgrade their offensive line this offseason to create that tone. And it’s a question over whether or not those potential upgrades will include looking at a new starting right tackle. Sunday is a pivotal and perhaps final opportunity for McGary to make not only a positive impression on this fan base, but more importantly this coaching staff. It’s one last chance to prove that their quest to upgrade in the trenches should start at a position other than right tackle.
Do you think McGary can contain Jordan on Sunday? Will we see yet another Falcons-Saints game end with Ryan laying on his backside half a dozen times?