One of the big question marks about Sunday’s matchup against the San Francisco 49ers is the Falcons offensive line. A year ago, they got dominated in an embarrassing playoff loss to the New York Giants. That led to the dismissal of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, who was replaced by former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill. After such an embarrassing finish, one expected a major shakeup to the offensive line in the off-season. The Falcons did use their two top picks on offensive linemen, drafting Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes in the second and third rounds. Also, one of their few moves in free agency was to pick up a veteran in Vince Manuwai. But by the time the 2012 season began, Manuwai had been bounced and the position battles involving Konz and Holmes resolved with incumbents Garrett Reynolds and Sam Baker, respectively, retaining their jobs. The Falcons started the same five in 2012 that finished 2011 poorly. It was an interesting statement by the team, suggesting that the major issue up front wasn’t a lack of talent, but an issue of coaching.
And now the Falcons are on the verge to face their biggest challenge of the season, the vaunted 49ers front seven. It was a dominant unit in 2011, and spearheaded their run to the NFC Championship behind Pro Bowl seasons from Justin Smith and Patrick Willis. That group’s reputation and continued production led to Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman sharing those same honors this season. If the Falcons have their way, all four players will be appearing in next Sunday’s Pro Bowl. But that will likely require the offensive line to do their job this Sunday afternoon.
As noted before, the Falcons will stand a better chance to win the game if they can get off to a fast start and attack a vulnerable 49ers secondary. But that requires the protection of quarterback Matt Ryan. That has been something this group has struggled to do this season, particularly in home games. That seemed to change after a Week 15 mauling of the New York Giants, as the unit got its revenge from last January. But a new face was in that group from last year’s quintet, as rookie right guard Peter Konz eventually earned the job when Garrett Reynolds went down with injury in November.
Konz has struggled throughout his baptism of fire, most notably against the Lions, but has occasionally managed to flash potential as a run blocker. That became a reality a week ago with a strong performance against the Seattle Seahawks front. If the Falcons intend to make headway against a formidable 49ers front, they will likely need a repeat performance from Konz.
Left tackle Sam Baker is going to draw the hardest matchup in pass protection, as he faces off against Aldon Smith. Over the course of his brief 32-game career, Smith has already tallied 33.5 sacks. He broke Reggie White’s record of reaching 30 career sacks the quickest, by doing so in 27 appearances compared to White’s 28. And Baker perhaps has the highest stakes of any player in this unit. He’s in the final year of his contract, and his performance against the young phenom could potentially make or break his career, at least financially. A good performance and the Falcons are likely playing in the Super Bowl, and he has earned himself a lucrative long-term contract from the Falcons or another team on the open market. A poor performance, and he’s probably a cast-off, conceding his job to Lamar Holmes and playing elsewhere with no promise of future starting opportunities.
Center Todd McClure is also an impending free agent, and few expect him to return in 2013. Like Tony Gonzalez, he could opt to retire after this season. This Sunday, he’ll be facing off against nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. McClure has traditionally struggled against 3-4 nose tackles, but if 2012 will be his swan song, it will be good to go out on a positive note by winning that matchup this weekend. Possibly replacing him could be either Konz or Joe Hawley. That decision may be based largely on Konz’s performance. A good finish to this season at right guard and Konz could stick around there in 2013. Another iffy one, and the conclusion is likely that Konz moves to his more natural center position and a new right guard is plugged in during the off-season.
Sixty percent of the Falcons offensive line could be shaken up this off-season, depending on their performance this weekend. The only stability is left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo. Given the long-term deals they signed following the lockout in 2011, they are pretty much guaranteed to be back for one more year. But it doesn’t mean that they can breathe easy Sunday. Blalock will be facing a tough matchup from Justin Smith, who is one of the league’s premier run defenders. Smith has been diminished by his Week 15 triceps injury, but he still is a guy that can control his man and win at the line of scrimmage with even just one and a half arms.
Clabo will face Ahmad Brooks, who is emboldened from a 7-hurry performance (per Pro Football Focus) against the Green Bay Packers rookie right tackle Don Barclay. Clabo has rebounded from a slow start to finish this season strongly and that will need to continue. The Falcons will be counting on him and Konz heavily to open up the running lanes they did a week ago, as well as protect Ryan. Despite being locks to return in 2013, neither player wants to open himself to scrutiny with a bad performance Sunday.
In the end, Dimitroff’s gamble in 2011 and Mike Smith’s shakeup to his coaching staff last year has put the lens squarely on the offensive line. Their success will likely determine the Falcons success and whether or not Monday will be a day to rejoice or mourn in the city of Atlanta. A poor performance and you will likely see the Falcons revamp their front five this off-season. A good performance and it becomes likely that at least four of the five starters (minus McClure) become fixtures up front for several seasons in the foreseeable future.