The big story from the weekend is the fact that the Falcons offensive line looked very suspect against the Titans on Saturday.
In fact, calling their performance suspect is about as nice as I can be. They got whooped. And if I could travel back in time and run into myself from a year ago and told him about their efforts against the Titans, my past self would tell the future self, “No duh.”
Frankly, the Falcons front five got whooped quite a bit in 2012. And by quite a bit, I mean that I can count on one hand how many games where they could be considered the victors of the battle in the trenches. And if their performance against the Titans is any indicator, that will not change in 2013.
It’s no small wonder. The Falcons replaced long-time fixtures at center and right tackle in Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo. They are still in a plug and play mode at right guard with Garrett Reynolds, in the hopes that third time is a charm with Reynolds as far as his production goes. If I ran into my past self, he’d call me naive if not downright stupid for thinking there would be significant improvement up front considering what the Falcons did this past off-season.
The offensive line certainly is going to be a work in progress. And in truth it may be several years before things get fixed up front.
Or this Titans game will prove to be an aberration, and the Falcons front will get their act together quickly and will prove to be far from a liability in 2013.
My time-traveling past self just slapped me in the face. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says. He’s right. There’s just too much evidence to expect otherwise. Sure, it’s possible. Anything is possible. It’s also possible that Sean Renfree earns league MVP honors in 2016. But no reasonable person is going to expect that.
The hope is that the other aspects of the offense will mask the deficiencies the Falcons have in their pass protection. If the front can give Matt Ryan a reasonable amount of time to throw, he can pick apart any defense. Dirk Koetter isn’t Mike Martz. He is going to call plays and protections that are going to compensate for a lackluster offensive line, if need be. He’s not going to force Matt Ryan to take a ton of 5 and 7-step drops which are going to expose him to a lot of unnecessary hits. The Falcons have the weapons that if they have to resort to a lot more dinking and dunking, then those guys still can produce. Julio Jones is a monster after the catch. And Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez actually do their best work inside 10 yards. And Roddy White has survived Joey Harrington and Mike Mularkey, so catching the short stuff isn’t going to be a problem for him.
Now whether that is a recipe for the ultimate success (i.e. winning a Super Bowl) is hard to say. My past self is shaking his head that it is not, and I have to concur. But that recipe shouldn’t prevent the Falcons from making the playoffs. And I can tell my past self that once we get into January, things become a bit more hopeful and optimistic. The hope is that the trials and tribulations of sixteen regular season games will make this unit gel enough that by January, maybe the Falcons can open up their offensive attack and potentially catch a few teams off-guard.
Not to mention an improved running game should also take pressure off the front line. It does appear that if preseason is the basis, that the running game is improved under Steven Jackson. Jackson has had 25 carries and been successful on 10 of them, for a solid success rate of 40%. He’s had 4 carries for 10 or more yards, and only been stopped for 1 yard or less on 3 of his 25 carries. Now if you compare that to Michael Turner’s preseason production last summer, you’ll see that Turner was successful on only 6 of 18 carries (33%). He also had no rushing attempts that went for 10 or more yards and 6 times was stopped for one yard or less.
Total yards gained really don’t factor into the evaluation, because running the football is less about accumulating yards, and more about keeping the offense on schedule and moving the chains. Obviously you need to gain yards in order to do those things, but you can’t simply look at a yardage total and tell everything you need to know about a running back. But for those of you that are still stuck in 1994 in how you view running backs, the preseason yardage totals do sum things up perfectly: Jackson has 101 yards on 25 carries (4.0 avg), while Turner had 49 yards on 18 carries (2.7 avg).
Most of that improvement probably has to do with Jackson looking sprier than Turner did a year ago. But the offensive line does deserve some part of the credit. Sam Baker no longer appears to be a weakling as a run blocker (although I don’t think that means he’s a good run blocker). Peter Konz is certainly an upgrade over McClure in terms of pushing the pile from the center position. Just ask Haloti Ngata. Reynolds looks to have improved his ability to get leverage and position as a run blocker, doing so on a much more consistent basis this summer. And Lamar Holmes, when he’s on his game also appears like he might be an upgrade over Clabo as far as run blocking is concerned. While Clabo was a good run blocker, he was never a pile mover, relying more on getting leverage and position to wall off defenders than drive them back. Perhaps Holmes will come into his own this year and be more of the latter.
The Falcons probably won’t have a top rushing attack this year, but they don’t really need to. They just need to be a lot closer to league average. The apt analogy is like going from Curtis Painter/Dan Orlovsky to Andrew Luck at quarterback. In the case of the Falcons, they were at or near the bottom of the league in terms of rushing the ball in 2012. Frankly, the Falcons rushing attack was so weak, you could argue it didn’t exist for about 75% of the season. Similar to the Colts quarterback production in 2011 under Painter and Orlovsky. Relative to his status as a rookie, replacing a living legend, and playing with a lackluster supporting cast sans his head coach, I think one can consider Luck to have had the finest rookie season for a quarterback in NFL history. But at least from a statistical production standpoint, he was largely average if not below average in many key areas that measure quarterbacks’ effectiveness. He was far from Peyton Manning in his prime. But in the case of the Falcons, if they can count on average production out of their running game in 2013, it will take a load of pressure off their passing game. It will mean that unlike 2012, the Falcons passing attack this fall won’t have to be special in a number of categories. They won’t need Matt Ryan to be an MVP candidate, nor will they need Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Roddy White all to be as lights out as they were in 2012. Those players will still have to be very good, but they don’t have to be ridiculously good as they were a year ago. And thus that won’t put as much pressure on the offensive line and pass protection to need to pull its weight in order to make those things happen.
Because frankly, I don’t think they’re up to snuff to pull that sort of weight. One only has to look at Aaron Rodgers’ dip in production from 2011 to 2012 to see how declining offensive line production can affect a quarterback. Now Rodgers was still excellent in 2012, but his production did take a notable dip according to advanced metrics:
And that dip is probably the main difference between being in the driver’s seat for winning a title in 2011 with a 15-1 record than being a third-seed at 11-5 in 2012 that got shellacked by the San Francisco 49ers on the road in the second round.
And let’s not be naive here. The Falcons aren’t exactly built to be a road juggernaut in January. So frankly, if the increased production in the running game can stave off that sort of decline in the passing game from Ryan & Co., it could wind up meaning the difference between the Falcons earning home field advantage and a first round bye, and the Falcons being a wildcard team that will be hard-pressed to be those higher-seeded teams on the road. And if you’re one of those Falcon fans that are embracing the “Super Bowl or Bust” mentality, that is going to be something to watch come the regular season because it could make or break their season.