Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Offensive Line

Atlanta Falcons offensive line
Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With the Falcons getting a week off, it is the perfect time to stop and take stock of where this team is and how far we can expect them to go. I’ve already covered Matt Ryan’s roller coaster of an opening. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the one group that Ryan will depend on the most moving forward; the Falcons offensive line.

The Falcons Offensive Line Is a Work in Progess

There were numerous questions in Atlanta prior to the 2021 season. The Falcons offensive line, however, stood out as the primary concern. The defense seemed destined for a bottom-five finish. That left the fate of this team resting squarely on the shoulders of the offense. The weapons were there, but would Matt Ryan have an opportunity to take advantage of them? Well, the results are starting to trickle in, and it’s been a mixed bag so far.

The Grizzled Vet

Despite the protests of a vocal minority, Matthews has been a dependable left tackle since entering the league in 2014. He has never been the type to dominate opponents physically. However, he’s a savvy player that finds himself in the top half of tackles every season. In terms of pass blocking, he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s allowed six pressures and zero sacks per PFF’s charting, good for eighth in the NFL, despite facing off against several quality pass rushers to open the season.

Though he’s maintained a high level of play as a pass blocker, there has been a noticeable drop-off in his performance in the run game. This decline has been a trend that began with the hiring of Dirk Koetter. I hoped a move back to an outside zone scheme would put him in a better position to succeed. It it hasn’t played out that way so far.

He’s routinely missed blocks and looked stiff in space, reflected in his 50.2 run-blocking grade from PFF. PFF grades aren’t the end-all measure, but it is a fair assessment in this case. If the Falcons want to build on the recent offensive performances, Matthews and his cohorts, need to step up in the run game.

Lindstrom Looking Elite

Chris Lindstrom was the most significant investment the Falcons have made in their offensive line since Jake Matthews, and the return on that investment is rolling in. The third-year guard has improved every season and now finds himself ranked as the fifth-best guard in the NFL by PFF. His tape backs up their assessment.

Per PFF’s charting, he’s allowed six total pressures and zero sacks through five games. That places him seventeenth in the NFL, but only because of the massive logjam of players tied for sixth with five total pressures. His performance is all the more impressive when considering the murder’s row of defensive tackles the Falcons have faced so far.

Lindstrom has also been the lone player on the Falcons line to be a consistent plus in the run game. Though he’s had a few rough moments, especially in the Philadelphia and Washington games, on balance, he’s been the only blocker that’s handled his assignment on a down-to-down basis, reflected in his 83.6 run-blocking grade from PFF.

Sharp Football Statistics has the Falcons averaging 4.5 yards/carry when running behind Lindstrom, 1.2 yards more than the next best Falcons lineman. His impact has been undeniable, and it’s refreshing to see an interior lineman develop into a borderline elite player.

Hennessy Will Drive a Man to Drink

The returns on the remaining investments along the Falcons offensive line have been a little less promising. Matt Hennessy is in his first season as the unquestioned starter, but it has been an up and down campaign thus far. As a pass protector, he’s allowed twelve pressures and a sack, per PFF. His worst game of the season was, by far, the opening tilt against the Eagles. At his best, he’s been average. At his worst, he’s been a total liability.

Despite ranking as the 13th overall center in the NFL according to PFF, Hennessy is easily overwhelmed by powerful interior players. Size and strength were known limitations for him, but the idea was he could leverage his athleticism to offset his lack of power. That hasn’t strictly come to fruition. He’s routinely missed reach blocks and is often late getting to the second level.

His inability to consistently seal off cutback lanes for Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson has limited this offenses ability to strike a balance between run and pass. Despite these inadequacies of late, I think he is showing signs of improvement from week to week. It’s not a steady ascension, but we don’t measure progress in a straight line. I suspect we will see a better version of Hennessy over these next four games than we’ve seen through the first five.

Asking too Much of Mayfield

Everyone’s favorite whipping boy this season has been Jalen Mayfield. After being stuck with the lowest pass-blocking grade ever handed out by PFF, Falcons fans were ready to ship Mayfield back to Michigan. I, however, have maintained my status as a Mayfield apologist the entire time. I won’t defend him as being a “good” player. All things considered though, he’s performed up to my, admittedly low, expectations.

Making a switch from guard to tackle is tough. It is only exasperated by switching from the right side of the line to the left side. For whatever reason, Arthur Smith decided the degree of difficulty wasn’t high enough for the third-round rookie. Bizarrely, he waited until halfway through training camp to give him significant snaps at the position. The chances for Mayfield to have a smooth start were essentially zero.

The Rookie is Turning a Corner

Despite the hurdles in front of him, Mayfield has steadily progressed from week to week. His PFF grades don’t cleanly track to that notion. However, he’s taken steps forward in each game based on my film review. He survived tough matchups against the Giants, Jets, and Washington, allowing only two sacks and nine pressures over those three weeks. Are those good stats? Not at all. However, considering he allowed two sacks and eleven pressures in the first two games, it’s measurable progress.

Along the way, he’s been a relatively decent run blocker. There are obvious mistakes, but there are absolutely dominant reps scattered in the last four games too. He buried Quinnen Williams early in the Jets game. Mayfield had similar flashes against the Giants and Washington as well. He still looks a bit tentative at times and is a bit stiff when he’s trying to maneuver in space. Considering he’s played at guard for roughly two months, I think he deserves to be graded on a curve. Much like Hennessy, I suspect we will see a better version of Mayfield in the second quarter of the season.

The Falcons Offensive Line Needs More from McGary

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this group is Kaleb McGary. We’d all hoped he would take the next step in his development this season. If anything, he’s regressed to what he was in his rookie season. He isn’t giving up QB pressures at quite the same clip, but at 14 pressures allowed already, he isn’t far off. It would be a bit more excusable if he were a rookie/first-year starter like Mayfield and Hennessy, but with 34 starts at right tackle, he should be rounding the corner. Instead, he has most of us pining for the hasty return of Matt Gono.

To McGary’s credit, he did manage to shut out Chase Young and Shaq Barrett already this season, but he’s still routinely outmatched by edge rushers and looks lost as a run blocker. The same issues that have plagued him his entire career, lack of athleticism and length, continue to cause problems for him week to week.

I’ve tried to give the whole roster a fair amount of slack, considering the massive roster and schematic overhaul this team has undergone. Still, McGary is a player I expected more, even if he missed significant time in camp. He will need to take massive strides over the next few months if he wants to have any hope of being retained after his rookie deal expires in 2022.

Can The Falcons Offensive Line Come Together In Time?

It’s a mess, but they are slowly pulling things together. Matthews and Lindstrom are an excellent core to build around and have (mostly) lived up to the hype so far. The other young players on this line don’t need to magically transform into Pro Bowlers for this unit to be effective. Small incremental gains and a slow creep to average are enough to win games. The issue is 3/5ths of this line are well below average.

There is hope, though. Despite being placed in as tough of a situation as possible, Jalen Mayfield has shown considerable growth. Matt Hennessy won’t have to face a top-tier defense tackle every week for the entire season. Despite posting lackluster grades, McGary managed to shut out two of the best edge rushers in the NFL. Each player on this line has logged an impressive performance at least once. Now they need to put it together at the same time.

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