It’s time to look up front at the blockers, starting with left guard Justin Blalock.
Pros: Has good strength and able to get position as a run blocker. Shows ability to get inside seal block to help create running lanes. Works best in a short area. Is effective when asked to get downfield and make blocks on the second level. Uses his strength and good punch in pass protection so that he does well defending the bull rush. Shows a nice mean streak.
Cons: Doesn’t have great footwork or technique. Doesn’t always stay square in pass protection and can struggle with quicker interior pass rushers. Not great when he’s left on an island. He needs to improve his balance as he spends too much time on the turf. Needs to do a better job with his footwork, particularly as a drive blocker which prevents him from getting push. Not that effective when asked to pull, missing assignments.
2010 Outlook: The term that would most aptly describe Blalock is “effective.” He is capable of doing anything you ask him, but he doesn’t stand out in any area or way. Blalock enters a contract year and it will be a pivotal year both for his future in Atlanta as well as in the league. He has shown improvement each year, but in order for the Falcons to bring him back for another season he is going to have to put everything together and make significant strides forward.
Blalock is probably the least nastiest of the Falcons front five, but that’s like saying Aaron Rodgers has the weakest arm of the NFC North quarterbacks. It’s not really a slight at Blalock, but just that he is surrounded by a bevy of nasty guys. He could get meaner, but since that has never really been a major part of his game dating back to his days at Texas, it’s not likely to improve. That’s not a trait that you can really manufacture.
The main thing with Blalock is that he needs to be more consistent with his footwork and technique. If he can polish those things up, then he’ll be a lot more effective player. The potential for growth is probably stronger in pass protection. I would not say he’s maxed out as a run blocker, but that’s an area that usually needs less development as players transition from college to pro players. It’s Blalock’s fourth year, and if he hasn’t emerged as a road grading run blocker by now, he likely never will. But pass protection is an area that can continue to improve as NFL careers go on. And the key with Blalock is that if he can be more consistent and sound with his technique and footwork, then he should be better able to handle duties when asked to block on an island. Since left guards tend to get more help from the center than the right guard, anytime a team can find a left guard capable of being left on an island (e.g. Steve Hutchinson) it acts like a domino effect, freeing the center and left tackle to better do their jobs. Blalock lacks Hutchinson’s potential, but if he can handle himself against players like Sedrick Ellis, Brodrick Bunkley, Brian Price,
Blalock came to Atlanta with a lot of expectation in 2007. He was widely considered to be one of the premier offensive linemen of that draft class, and was the first time the Falcons had use a pick in one of the first two rounds on a blocker since 2000. Many thought (including myself) that he had Pro Bowl potential when we drafted him. But he struggled as a rookie starter. He’s shown improvement, cutting down on penalties and do a better job in pass protection.
If Blalock doesn’t put things together this year, it’s doubtful the Falcons will show a lot of interest in bringing him back in 2011. And he would be hard-pressed to go elsewhere and become a fixture in another team’s starting lineup. The team drafted Mike Johnson for this express purpose. Johnson, unlike Blalock shows greater potential as a power run blocker.
He can also improve if he can get some help from his partner at left tackle: Sam Baker. Blalock’s play can improve if he can count on Baker to be healthy and in the lineup for all sixteen games. That way, they can try and build a stronger rapport and working relationship that Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo appear to have on the right side.
In Summary… Blalock is at a crossroads in his career. And pressure will be on him to show he can be a fixture on the left side of the Falcons line for the long haul this season. Otherwise the team has contingency plans in place to replace him. The terms “capable” and “effective” would best describe Blalock’s play a year ago, but he has the potential to change those descriptive words to “good” and “reliable.”