The Falcons pass protection played poorly in their season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints last week. Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked three times and saw pressure on 75% of the Falcons third downs, preventing the team’s ability to mount drives and score points.
The Falcons offensive line will face even more scrutiny this week as they face the St. Louis Rams, who have one of the better pair of defensive ends in the league in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Quinn is coming off a three-sack performance against the Arizona Cardinals last week, including stripping quarterback Carson Palmer twice on blindside hits. One positive for the Falcons may be that Long may not be 100-percent due to him nursing a hip injury. But regardless the Falcons’ line will need to step up this week to deal with that potent Rams’ pass rush.
Complicating matters is the fact that left tackle Sam Baker is questionable this week with a knee injury. It may force the Falcons to shuffle around their offensive line. Right tackle Lamar Holmes, who is coming off an abysmal game where he was readily worked over by Cameron Jordan may move to left tackle to face Quinn. Then newly signed right tackle Jeremy Trueblood may be inserted into the starting lineup. The Falcons may also have to consider starting undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder at left tackle, as he is Baker’s primary backup.
Even with a healthy Baker the Falcons would need to work extra hard to try and deal with the Rams’ pass rush. Now that he’s injured, it will have an even greater impact on the game. Here are five things the Falcons may do to try and offset these issues the best they can:
Personnel: More Max Protect
As Chad Walton indicated in his review of the Saints game, the Falcons did not make significant use of two-tight end sets (12 or 22 personnel). That should change this weekend as the Falcons will use more max protection sets to try and chip and slow down the Rams’ edge rushers. Max protect refers to protections that have at least seven blockers trying to protect the quarterback. But one of the drawbacks of max protect is that it limits how many receivers run routes, limiting the quarterback’s throwing options. This puts more emphasis on those receivers needing to separate from coverage. That could put the Falcons at a disadvantage this weekend since their two best “man beaters” on the outside in Julio Jones and Roddy White are nursing injuries, limiting their effectiveness. This will put more focus on Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas to step up their play.
Play-Calling: Quicker Throws
In that aspect, the Falcons will probably be more conservative with their offense in terms of getting receivers open in shorter, quick routes that won’t require Ryan to take deep drops or stand in the pocket for too long. This sort of offense does suit receivers like Gonzalez and Douglas who do their best work on the short and intermediate routes. If the Rams continue to use a conservative defensive gameplan that puts their corners in off-coverage, this could be a favorable matchup for the Falcons.
Moving the Pocket: More Roll-outs
Another way to protect Ryan is to get him on the move more by rolling him out of the pocket. This makes the distance that defenders have to chase Ryan much greater, thus making it harder to get to him. The Falcons utilized the rollout quite a bit when Mike Mularkey was calling plays in Atlanta. And while the Falcons still utilize it under Dirk Koetter, it is not quite the staple it once was. Due to his experience with it, Ryan is very effective with it. But one of the drawbacks of the rollout is that it essentially cuts the field in half, and like max protect limits the number of options Ryan has to throw to. Typically over the years, there has been a high read (typically a wideout like White) and a low read (typically a running back or tight end like Gonzalez).
Increase Tempo: More No-Huddle
The Falcons barely utilized the no-huddle a week ago against the Saints for a variety of factors, but mainly due playing on the road and dealing with the crowd noise makes no-huddle difficult. But this week at home, they won’t have to deal with that. Increasing the tempo and running more no-huddle should be an effective way of tiring out the Rams’ pass rushers. No-huddle limits the substitutions that the Rams are able to do and also makes them much more vanilla with their sort of pressure packages and blitzes they are willing to do.
Establishing the Run: Unleash Jackson
Probably the best way to limit pass rushers is by preventing them from rushing the passer altogether. And that means forcing them to defend the run. The Falcons will look to get running back Steven Jackson more established this week. Jackson received six first quarter carries against the Saints last week, but due to the Falcons falling behind and the second/third and long situations set up by their pass protection woes, got limited work as a runner as the game progressed. That should change this week. Jackson, who spent his entire career with the Rams, will want to shoulder the load for the Falcons win. While his departure from St. Louis involved no bad blood, I’m sure Jackson would love to show out against his former teammates this weekend despite his assertions that he won’t be too emotional for the game.