The biggest question marks surrounding the Atlanta Falcons entering this past Saturday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans centered on the team’s offensive tackle position.
But thankfully, both starting tackles: Jake Matthews and Lamar Holmes performed well against the Titans. Both players of course had their share of lapses, which comes with the territory of being a developing NFL player, but the Falcons should emerge with a good deal of confidence from that game based off their collective performance.
While Matthews missed a couple of blocking assignments against the Titans, he more than held his own against quality competition he faced in defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and edge-rusher Kamerion Wimbley. Casey is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, and while he had a solid overall performance against the Falcons, there were several times when Matthews was able to thwart and control him. Wimbley’s production has steadily declined since a nine-sack season in 2010, but outside one or two snaps was unable to get the better of Matthews.
Those are both positive signs. Compared to the play of the Falcons tackles from a year ago, there would have been very few instances where they would have managed to control the likes of Casey and would have looked overmatched almost every snap. The fact that Wimbley’s play has declined over the past three seasons is indicative of Matthews’ strong performance as well. It would have been more concerning had Wimbley gotten the better of him several times.
Matthews showed against the Titans that he indeed has a bright future ahead of him. While there will still be breakdowns and penalties from time to time, the Falcons should be confident in their ability to move forward with Matthews protecting Matt Ryan’s blindside. There certainly could be a number of games on the horizon where Matthews struggles, but the Falcons shouldn’t feel like the offense is going to be held back from having a rookie like him at left tackle.
That is a very positive development for not only the Falcons this season, but also moving forward. The Falcons just simply haven’t gotten a lot of good news when their offensive line has been involved over the past few years.
And speaking of positive news, the play of Holmes at right tackle against the Titans was also very promising. While it doesn’t mean that Holmes has proven himself as a capable starter, there is certainly reason to hope that the Falcons won’t spend a good deal of the week leading up to games trying to figure out how to shield and hide Holmes in their protection schemes. That certainly was not the case for the majority of the 2013 season.
Holmes deserves credit for performing with the spotlight on him, something he failed to do last summer. Then, Holmes was elevated to the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to then starting right tackle Mike Johnson. Holmes subsequently looked overmatched and out of shape in the preseason and that carried over into the regular season. This summer, with Sam Baker going down and prompting Holmes’ elevation, he was much better prepared to step up and fill the void on Saturday.
Holmes will still have a huge test to start the regular season on September 7 against New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan routinely abused Holmes in last season’s opener, prompting the Saints pass-rusher to refer to Falcons blockers as mere “speedbumps” on the way to the quarterback this past spring.
It will be on Holmes to shut Jordan’s mouth. And while I’m not as confident as I would be if Matthews was still on the right side, I’m certainly more confident than I was 48 hours ago that Holmes will at least put up a worthwhile fight against Jordan.
With fears surrounding the offensive line abating, my chief concern on the Falcons offense heading into the season is now becoming the tight end position.
One of the things that emerged against the Titans was the Falcons ample use of extra offensive linemen to beef up their ground game. Both Ryan Schraeder and Johnson entered the game flanking Matthews and Holmes at tackle to give the team an added presence in the run game. That is essentially a shot across the bow of Levine Toilolo, who missed a number of assignments when facing Titans defensive linemen and outside linebackers when blocking on Saturday.
Expectations were fairly low on Toilolo entering the summer. Nobody expected him to fill the void left by Tony Gonzalez as a pass-catcher at the position, but the hope was that Toilolo would prove a superior run blocker. And while he still may technically qualify as that given Gonzalez’s deficiencies there, he still may not be good enough for the Falcons.
It’s clear that if the Falcons had a strong inline blocker at the position, their need to use a tackle like Schraeder would be lessened.
Unfortunately, the question remains whether the Falcons will seriously address the position between now and September 7. The team’s normal modus operandi would be to stand pat at the position, continue to use an extra tackle and hope that over the course of the season Toilolo improves.
But that method is a flawed one. If the team could clearly benefit by getting a competent to good blocker, it makes little sense not to try and make a move.
Certainly the Falcons could probably get by with utilizing a lot more four-wide receiver sets and Schraeder acting as an extra blocker. Going four-wide is a good plan if the Falcons are trying to get the best 11 players on the field on any given snap. Of course a problem arises if the Falcons were to suffer an injury to one of their top four wideouts. Eric Weems is the most experienced of the team’s remaining reserves. Bernard Reedy has flashed potential this summer, but he’s an undersized rookie with very, very limited snaps with the starting offense. If either player is forced to play extensively as the fourth wide receiver, the argument that the Falcons would be featuring their best 11 players completely falls apart.
As for Schraeder working as an extra blocker, that precedent has already been set. Johnson played over 100 snaps in 2012 working primarily as an sixth offensive lineman/tight end. However, what would happen in the event of an injury? What if Schraeder was forced into the starting lineup at either tackle spot due to an injury to Matthews or Holmes? Would Gabe Carimi, Harland Gunn, or whomever else replaced Schraeder as the extra blocker be just as good in that capacity? Perhaps, but it’s clear the Falcons plan would be undermined by injuries.
Given the fact that the competition for the Falcons backup tight end position hasn’t been decided yet, should further prompt the Falcons to try and make a move at the position. Mickey Shuler has performed well in his first two preseason games, but he’s a journeyman player that hasn’t played a regular-season down in four years. Bear Pascoe was added to beef up the Falcons blocking, but has underwhelming thus far in preseason. Would it be such a crime if the Falcons added another tight end that would relegate Toilolo to the backup, a role he’s much more suited for?
The Falcons could deal a late-round pick to some team for a quality blocking tight end or hope to scoop up someone decent when final cuts are made this weekend. The team is likely to keep three tight ends anyway, and the possibility of losing either Shuler or Pascoe to make room for an addition at the position doesn’t appear to be a great loss.
The immediate gut reaction for the Falcons making a bold roster move and benching Toilolo, would be that the team is giving up on him. That is by no means the case. Benching him only just means that he’s not quite ready yet. Toilolo still would have the rest of this season and two more years in Atlanta to prove himself. If he does indeed show growth over the course of this year, then that will be a very positive development. But the Falcons should by no means hitch themselves to the wagon where Toilolo must improve in order for this offense to reach its full potential.
Toilolo, who stands 6’8″, can be relegated to a role similar to Detroit Lions 6’7″ tight end Joseph Fauria from a year ago. Fauria served as the team’s backup behind Brandon Pettigrew for most of the year, with blocking being a major assignment. But he still got plenty of opportunities to make plays in the passing game, particularly in the red zone. Fauria was targeted 30 times last season, with 14 of those coming in the red zone. Fauria caught seven of those red-zone passes and scored touchdowns on six of them. Adding another tight end won’t prevent the Falcons from still getting production from Toilolo. In fact if he’s used like Fauria, it would make Toilolo into a more productive player because you can pick and choose his spots.
As for other roster question marks emerging from the weekend, the Falcons have to seriously ask whether they trust their pass rush. Against the Titans, the team struggled to generate pressure early without blitzing. The Titans starters had a total of 20 dropbacks and the Falcons managed to generate some heat on half of them. But only four of those 20 dropbacks featured a Falcons disruption via a sack or incomplete pass. And three of those four required the team to bring five or more rushers. The first time the Falcons were able to get pressure with just four guys and not allow a completed pass was on Jake Locker’s final snap of the game in the third quarter. On that play, Malliciah Goodman beat right guard Chance Warmack to deliver a hit on Locker, causing his pass to be way off the mark.
The Falcons starters rushed only four guys a total of 14 times, and generated pressure on six of those tries. It was clear that the team got better as the game wore on, as they only generated pressure on two of the first nine Titans dropbacks in which they rushed four guys. Obviously, on the last five, they got heat on four of those plays. But again, it let to only one disruption where the Titans offense was negatively affected.
The Falcons were much more successful bringing five rushers, applying pressure on four of five plays with three total disruptions. They rushed six on one play, but failed to get pressure.
These numbers do represent an improvement from last year’s lackluster pass rush, but things do not bode well if the Falcons are going to have to rely on bringing five rushers to generate consistent pressure this season. That puts unwanted pressure on the secondary, which is still looking to break in players like Robert Alford at cornerback and Dwight Lowery at free safety. Not to mention, the Falcons battle at nickel cornerback still remains unsettled.
One way the Falcons can improve their chances of getting to the quarterback is by getting more reps for Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodman instead of Kroy Biermann and Tyson Jackson, respectively.
Five of the six times in which the Falcons generated pressure with just four rushers, their “Nickel Four” front was in. That is my own term for the front line that features Massaquoi at left end, Goodman at left defensive tackle, Jonathan Babineaux at right tackle and Osi Umenyiora at right end. In fact, there was only one of six plays that featured that four-man front solely rushing the quarterback where the Falcons didn’t get some pressure.
Their “Base 4″ front which features a quartet of Biermann, Jackson, Paul Soliai and Babineaux managed to only get pressure once in four plays. That came at the end of the first quarter, when Soliai powered through Andy Levitre to get a pressure. Levitre was the player the Falcons beat the majority of the times when they got pressure, as Babineaux also saw two hurries working against him at the end of the second quarter.
Four times the Falcons featured a nickel front with Biermann at left end instead of Massaquoi, and once with Maponga there, and none of those times the team was able to get any pressure. One of the reasons why the Falcons failed to get pressure early on was their insistence on using Biermann in passing situations during the first two series.
If the proof is in the pudding, then the dessert clearly shows that the Falcons are overly reliant on Biermann and Jackson. While both players have the potential to be assets against the run, both players are past their primes as far as pass-rushing goes. And at this point, it would be smart of the Falcons to try to feature Massaquoi and Goodman more heavily in their base front. Whatever is lost against the run, can be gained against the pass. Considering that 58 percent of offensive plays were passes a year ago, it makes sense to err on that side versus the other in the hope things balance out.
But the Falcons can certainly continue to make strides as far as generating a pass rush with just four guys by scouring the waiver wire for more help next week. I happen to be of the opinion that Osi Umenyiora is well past his prime and there is potentially room for the team to upgrade that spot with a younger, more productive player.
Would such a player be released this weekend? Doubtful, since NFL teams rarely let go of good pass-rushers, especially young ones with potential. But the Falcons could certainly make a trade for some younger edge-rusher that can replace Umenyiora in their nickel front. A few names to throw out there that could potentially be acquired for the right price might include Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland Browns), Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles) and Mike Neal (Green Bay Packers).
So the Falcons potentially have options if they choose to explore them. Neal is the oldest of the group at age 27, making him five years younger than Umenyiora. The Falcons would be prudent to acquire one of these young pass-rushers because not only could any one of them add an immediate upgrade over Umenyiora, but also means that the team could get significant long-term value over several more seasons.
I would be surprised if the Falcons pulled the trigger on such a trade for a young pass-rusher in the coming week, but the positive is that there is still the trade deadline that won’t come until October 28. That means the Falcons have as many as eight games to evaluate their pass-rush before pulling the trigger.
If Umenyiora’s production is unsatisfactory through the first few month of the season, the Falcons could potentially call up any one of those teams and start talking trade.
While Holmes and Matthews were able to effectively answer on major question this weekend, there still remain a few more problems that the Falcons can solve.