Personnel changes along Falcons offensive line paying dividends

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The Falcons’ offensive line has been a sore spot for several years. After surrendering 40 sacks last season and the most quarterback hits in the league, Atlanta needed to do something different. And personnel changes along the front have paid dividends thus far as Elijah Wilkinson replaced Jalen Mayfield at left guard and Drew Dalman took the starting center spot from Matt Hennessy.

Those two were some of the worst pass protectors in the league. Mayfield was the very worst in pass sets, and Hennessy was the sixth-worst. And after the first week, it was clear the changes had positive returns as the unit didn’t allow a sack in the season opener while also paving the way for over 200 yards on the ground.

To be fair, though, the group wasn’t nearly as good in Week 2 against the Rams. Marcus Mariota was sacked three times as the offense struggled to move the ball on the ground — 3.3 yards per rushing attempt. Still, the unit is moving in the right direction, and Arthur Smith realizes exactly that.

“I think our O-Line’s playing really well. They did a nice job with the plan on Donald. They’ve been protecting well; pockets have been clean for the most part. We’ve run the ball relatively well through the first two games,” Smith said.

Despite Dalman having a couple of penalties and a few botched snaps, he’s been head and shoulders better than Hennessy, in my opinion. The Rams game wasn’t great, but his performance against an impressive Saints defensive front was better than anything Hennessy provided in 2021. At this point, Dalman is the Falcons’ center for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, Wilkinson didn’t have a very high bar to meet. Mayfield was horrendous for large parts of the 2021 season, so being average is a massive improvement, especially considering he faced the best defensive lineman in football in Aaron Donald last week.

“I think Elijah’s handled that transition really well. I thought it was his best game. It was a heck of a challenge, they moved Donald (to) a lot of spots, and our guys handled it, and they adapted. It wasn’t perfect, but I think there’s been a lot of progress over there,” Smith said.

Though it’s been a small sample size, it seems the changes up front are already having positive returns. To give a full scope of the unit’s improvement, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the effect of Mariota’s mobility on the offensive line’s success. Matt Ryan was essentially a statue, so the offensive line’s job becomes much easier with a much more mobile quarterback to protect. Mariota has been able to extend plays and given Arthur Smith the ability to call a much different game, which in turn takes the pressure off the line.

The Falcons have a much easier task in Seattle as Atlanta takes on a bad Seahawks team. Establishing the run is the first step in Arthur Smith’s offense, which never got going in Week 2. Look for the Falcons’ offensive line to assert their dominance in Week 3.

Photographer: Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire
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