I’ve already discussed how Michael Turner’s play this year will be a key to success for the Falcons in 2012. Tied to that is the play of the offensive line. It’s clear that the Falcons are a team that pride themselves on being an effective to good running team. And that notion isn’t likely to change under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The Jaguars under Jack Del Rio styled themselves in a similar manner, being a team that could run the ball well and play good defense, i.e. often the core elements of what is called being “physical.” That’s the exact sort of mentality and identity that Mike Smith has tried to instill here in Atlanta over the past four seasons. And it’s probably one of the main reasons why Smith was attracted to Koetter to take over for Mike Mularkey.
But joining Koetter on his quest to reinvigorate the Falcons offense on the ground will be new offensive line coach Pat Hill. Hill comes to the Falcons after years as the head coach at Fresno State. The Falcons hope Hill’s brand of high energy and toughness will also prove a boost up front.
It was clear last year that the biggest weakness on the offense was the offensive line. They struggled to create holes for Turner to run through, and struggled protecting Matt Ryan when they faced quality pass rushes. While the team may be very vocal about not regretting the decision to trade for Julio Jones, they certainly should be regretful over how they took the offensive line for granted last off-season.
Too often the line got manhandled in 2011 and it often occurred in instances where they could not establish the run early in games. If they got behind the offense would become one-dimensional and lose its balance. And several opposing teams were able to take advantage by pinning their ears back and be effective at getting to Matt Ryan.
Ryan is not a quarterback that likes to get hit. That isn’t questioning his toughness, but there is plenty of evidence over the past four years that if teams can get to him early and often, it can affect his play the rest of the game. That could also describe Tom Brady rather easily. So it’s prohibitive of Ryan becoming a top quarterback, it’s just an obstacle to overcome. You can live with a subpar O-line in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger behind center because he seems to thrive at times with pressure in his face. But that won’t be the case here in Atlanta, and thus emphasizing better play up front will remain important as long as Ryan is the starter.
Thus the Falcons off-season decisions to bolster the competition up front were good moves. The team needed to improve their blocking, and they did so by adding veteran guard Vince Manuwai and drafting rookies Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes in the draft.
Konz and Manuwai are expected to compete directly for the right guard position. And Holmes will be in the mix at tackle. That tackle, especially on the left side remains the key. The team seems prepared to give Sam Baker at least another summer to prove himself, but it will be a difficult uphill climb for him to regain his starting position. Will Svitek outplayed him last year, and Holmes is virtually guaranteed a roster spot due to his draft status. So that means between Svitek and Baker, one is likely to stay on as the starter, while the other is going to be cut.
Justin Blalock at left guard, Tyson Clabo at right tackle, and Todd McClure at center are relatively secure with their jobs. The Falcons didn’t pay Blalock and Clabo last summer all that money to have them sit the bench. And while McClure will see nominal competition from the likes of Joe Hawley and possibly Konz, the team would not have brought him back even at the veteran minimum if they didn’t expect him to be the starter.
Left tackle is probably going to be the key area of concern going forward. One of the issues that the Falcons had for years with Baker as the starter, was their inability to get any push in the ground game. Svitek is a better run blocker, but was fairly inconsistent there last year. Holmes will hopefully correct those issues going forward, but he remains a relatively raw rookie. He was not a dominant run blocker while at Southern Miss and probably still needs some development to undergo before he’s truly ready to take over the spot. Nobody truly expects Baker or Svitek to be great there, as they are essentially stopgaps until Holmes is ready. But they just need to stabilize the position so that it is no longer a major liability both on the ground and in pass protection.
It seems to be a fairly safe conclusion that whoever wins the battle at right guard is going to be an upgrade over last year. The team was forced to play the undersized Hawley at the position for most of the year, and while he was competent at times, he never once played at a level where he could be considered good. Manuwai for years was the best blocker up front for the Jaguars, and with a year out of football to heal up and get in shape, he should be chomping at the bit to prove to skeptics that he is not washed up.
If the Falcons can get increased production on the right side, it should definitely help the ground attack. The Falcons missed that with Harvey Dahl’s departure. While he was not great, alongside Clabo they formed the strength of the Falcons front. They were the most adept at being able to push the pile, and create the necessary space for a runner with Turner’s style to get to the line of scrimmage, square his shoulders, and run downhill. If they can get that level of production out of either Manuwai or Konz now teaming with Clabo, that should definitely help.
That way the Falcons can establish the run early in football games and get that sort of balance the rest of the way that Mike Smith & Co. stress so much. Because being able to run the ball and throw it makes you harder to defend. And too often last year, especially against good teams and defensive fronts, the Falcons could not establish that run and bring the balance they seek offensively. It’s going to be firmly on the shoulders of the Falcons front this year. They have new bodies and a new coach, and thus have high expectations for what is to come in 2012.