Falcons: Julio Jones or not, solidifying the offensive line is most important in Arthur Smith’s offense

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Barring any acquisitions through a Julio Jones trade or free agency, the Falcons’ offensive personnel is essentially set in stone with the starters as well as the open competition at left guard and center. Matt Hennessey and fourth-round pick Drew Dalman will battle it out for center, while Josh Andrews, Jalen Mayfield, Matt Gono, and Dalman will battle it out at left guard. Arthur Smith remains adamant about winning in the trenches, “Obviously, we’re going to go as the line goes.” The driver of success in Tennessee and failure in Atlanta the past couple of seasons was offensive line play, as it will continue to be in 2021.

Over the past three seasons, Matt Ryan has been sacked 42, 48, and 41 times, respectively. There is plenty of blame to go around for those egregious numbers — poor offensive line play, predictability on the offensive coordinator’s part, and Ryan likely holding the ball too long a time or two. In reality, sacks can be a misleading statistic for all of those reasons, but pressures are a more indicative stat of bad offensive line play. Ryan faced 174 pressures in 2019 (28th in the league) and 167 pressures in 2020 (24th in the league). Those figures are WITH Julio Jones, so clearly, no matter how many weapons a quarterback has at his disposal, offensive line play is paramount.

Jake Matthews is the stalwart of this group, and he’ll need to have an exceptional year — he’s responsible for his own play and will also have to help whoever is at left guard. Matthews knows the wide-zone scheme well, being a part of the group that went to the Super Bowl in 2016 under Kyle Shanahan’s leadership.

“I love the wide-zone scheme,” Matthews said. “We’ve had a lot of success with it in the past. I’m excited to be going back to more stuff like that. I’m excited to run the ball more. That’s our goal as an offensive line to take over games like we used to. That’s the standard we have.”

The Falcons will have to be better as a group, and there is certainly a difference in the offensive line play from Atlanta and Tennessee the past two seasons. Arthur Smith’s group ranked eighth in 2019 and 15th in 2020, according to PFF. At the same time, the Falcons ranked 24th and 21st, respectively. Below is PFF’s reasoning for their rankings of both teams from 2020.

The Falcons allocated not one but two first-round picks toward improving the right side of their offensive line in the 2019 NFL Draft. Things didn’t quite pan out in Year 1 for those players, as Chris Lindstrom played just 309 offensive snaps — missing significant time with injury — and Kaleb McGary was routinely beat in pass protection with 13 sacks and 13 quarterback hits allowed in 2019.

Fast forward to 2020 and Lindstrom is the highest-graded offensive lineman in Atlanta with a 77.1 overall grade (fifth at right guard) and more offensive snaps than any other player at the position. However, McGary still had his struggles in pass protection with a 58.2 pass-blocking grade this season. He’ll need to show signs of improvement there in 2021 to maintain his starting job.

The Titans as a whole were a much better run-blocking than pass-blocking group; there was not a single starter on the Tennessee offensive line that recorded a higher pass-blocking than run-blocking PFF grade.

Derrick Henry being the first-team All-Pro running back obviously played a role in their rushing success this season, but the guys up front also did a good job of blocking for one of the more interesting run schemes in the NFL. The Titans ran more outside zone (45%) than any team other than the Bears, but many of their better runs of the season came in duo.

The tackle position was the biggest concern for the Titans this season, with off-the-field troubles putting a sizable blemish on the rookie season of first-round pick Isaiah Wilson and an injury to Taylor Lewan compounding the loss of Jack Conklin on the other side in free agency. Those are big contributing factors to some of Tennessee’s struggles in pass protection this year.

Chris Lindstrom is a rapidly ascending guard in this league, and Matthews is always reliable, but things could be bleak outside of them. Though he has steadily improved in his first two seasons, Kaleb McGary will have to take a sizeable leap in year three to fortify the right side, but I expect a change of scheme and Dwayne Ledford to propel that improvement. The biggest question marks are at center and left guard.

Starting two rookies is certainly a possibility, but the coaching staff has said the best five guys will start. Josh Andrews has seen the majority of snaps at left guard, but I wouldn’t put any weight into anything this far out of season. Arthur Smith said the staff is confident in the development plan set forth for Jalen Mayfield, but only time will tell if he can be acclimated quickly enough for a Week 1 start. Ledford acknowledged Matt Hennessey in the limited snaps he took in 2020, “I’ve been real impressed with Matt Hennessy,” Ledford said.

Playing center as a rookie can be challenging for a number of reasons, but Ledford believes it’s possible, and Dalman might have what it takes. “I don’t feel, I’m not apprehensive at all in saying that … feel good about saying yes, a rookie can go in there play center in the NFL his first year,” Ledford said. “I think that obviously you have to see that, once they get here. Once you put them in certain situations and see how they kind of progress throughout our offseason and in camp to see how they handle all of that.”

The competition will be fierce, and as always, iron sharpens iron. The Falcons’ overall success hinges on the play in the trenches, but more specifically, the offensive output should be directly attributed to the offensive line’s success or failure. Julio Jones is a world-class receiver, but wideouts can only affect the game so much. This offensive scheme is predicated on running the ball, and inherently, offensive line play.

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