The hope going into this past weekend when the Atlanta Falcons faced off against the Miami Dolphins was that the new-look offensive line would hold up against a very formidable Dolphins defensive front helmed by some of the league’s premier pass-rushers.
That hope died on the opening series of what became a 13-9 loss for the Falcons. On that series, Dolphins defensive tackle Earl Mitchell consistently overwhelmed left guard James Stone on several plays, powering the second-year guard several yards into the backfield.
Stone has bore the brunt of the criticism from fans largely because he is one of the least proven of the team’s starters up front. Stone had a notable mishap last week against the New York Jets, when Leonard Williams blew past him for a safety and then had a bad series to start this past Saturday’s game against the Dolphins. It proved too much for most and it puts the coaching staff’s decision making over the past three weeks into question.
During that period, Stone has received the majority of the team’s first-team reps at left guard. While head coach Dan Quinn indicated that Stone was still fighting for his job after the Jets game, any competition he’s faced from Mike Person appears to be nominal. Person’s played left guard in the preseason games, but only after he’s gotten work at center, where he’s spent most of his practice time in August.
Person Might Have Taken Hawley’s Job at Center
Person earned the start at center against the Dolphins over Joe Hawley, a bit of a head-scratcher given that Person has seemingly fared better as a guard than a center. That has been evidenced from the fact that Person hasn’t been able to reliably perform one of the most fundamental aspects of being a center, which is snapping the ball. He had a bad snap in each of the Falcons’ first two preseason games and there was also a bad exchange between him and quarterback T.J. Yates again in Miami.
Judging by the decisions that the coaching staff have made in the past few days, it would appear that Person entered this weekend ahead of Hawley on the depth chart. Both players had been alternating series with the starters during the first two preseason games, but Person logged the start in the all-important, third preseason game which often acts as a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
It’s possible that Hawley’s knee was bothering him to the degree that the Falcons wanted to give Person a more extensive look with the starters just in case those issues continue to linger into the regular season. But logic indicates that if Hawley’s knee was limiting him in any way, then the Falcons would have simply sat him against the Dolphins. The team did not, inserting him into the lineup in the second quarter once the backup offensive line came into the game.
Based off that, there’s little reason to suspect that injury had much to do with Hawley’s demotion. Instead the only logical conclusion is that Hawley’s demotion had to do with on-field performance. For whatever reason, the Falcons’ new coaching staff feel that Person is a superior option to Hawley at the pivot.
If Person can get his snapping down, there’s reason to understand that belief. Person’s blocking hasn’t really been the issue when he’s been at center. He certainly struggled at times when trying to block Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on Saturday, but that was to be expected. Some of those instances came when Person was locked up one-on-one with arguably the league’s most dominant interior defensive lineman was thanks to right guard Chris Chester abandoning him to try and help out right tackle Ryan Schraeder.
While much of the venom among the fan base has been centered on Stone and Person, it’s probably Schraeder that had the most troubling performance in Miami.
Schraeder’s struggles against Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake are certainly understandable to a degree. Wake is one of the league’s premier edge-rushers and would give any offensive tackle fits. But more troubling was that Schraeder also struggled against Wake’s backup Derrick Shelby.
Schraeder is considered one of the team’s better players and thus should be much more reliable against players like Shelby. But Shelby wasn’t the first backup edge-rusher to give Schraeder trouble, as Lorenzo Mauldin gave him fits last week.
Even more troubling than Schraeder’s struggles in pass protection are that he missed several assignments as a run-blocker against Miami.
Poor Run-Blocking Tops Falcons Offensive Concerns
Unfortunately, one can’t solely point the finger at Schraeder for the Falcons’ run-blocking troubles this summer. The various rotations of starting fives have had a dozen series in three games. Overall, they’ve produced a total of 12 rushing yards on 17 carries, averaging less than one yard per carry.
The Falcons have been successful on just three of those 17 carries, a rate of 17.6 percent. That’s a success rate that’s lower than half of what the Falcons want to achieve this season. As I noted two weeks ago, the Falcons need to have balance on offense to make a key component of their offense effective this year: play-action passing.
The Falcons don’t need to have a dominant running game to make play action effective, but they do need to be able to reliably run the ball to force defenses to respect them. Play action won’t be effective if it doesn’t force defenders to bite and said defenders won’t bite if they don’t respect the Falcons’ rushing attack. Given the poor production that the Falcons have sported this preseason, there’s certainly no defense that is going to respect their running game.
Explosive Offense Critical for Falcons to Compensate
The 2015 Falcons are likely to embrace a style of offense unseen in Atlanta for many years, which is likely to be one that seeks to generate explosive plays. Against the Jets, it was clear how impactful big plays were to getting the Falcons two early scores in that game.
Fullback Collin Mooney’s 60-yard reception and Devin Hester’s 59-yard punt return set up a pair of early scores against a good Jets defense. The Falcons failed to get such chunk yardage plays against the Dolphins on Saturday, and unsurprisingly their offense struggled.
Certainly the problems along the line contributed to those struggles. But the absence of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Devonta Freeman were also contributing factors. White and Freeman were sporting injuries that kept them out of the lineup, while Jones was a healthy scratch.
Jones is the Falcons’ signature dynamic player, evidenced by the massive new deal he signed subsequent to Saturday’s game. And it can’t be underrated how impactful his absence in the Dolphins game led to the offensive struggles. Simply put, this team is going to struggle if he misses anymore time.
That absence is very reminiscent of the 2013 season. And the Falcons exposure against the Dolphins’ front was also reminiscent of their third preseason game that summer against the Tennessee Titans.
Matt Ryan was sacked five times against the Titans in 2013. That poor performance signaled the problems that would plague the Falcons offensive line throughout the 2013 season.
That of course is troubling for the 2015 team should history repeat itself. Yet, it’s not all horrifying. Contrary to popular opinion, the failures of the 2013 season had less to do with the problems of the offensive line and more to do with the failures of the front office and coaching staff.
That’s because when Jones suffered a season-ending foot injury five games into the season, the Falcons ignored their need to acquire a receiver with explosive capabilities. Subsequently, the Falcons offensive play-calling got overly conservative and because one of the league’s worst offenses during the middle of that 2013 season.
After Jones’ injury, the Falcons next two wins came in the games where they were able to generate five or more plays of 20-plus yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week Seven and Buffalo Bills in Week 13.
As the Falcons showed that year, the best way to offset a porous offensive line was the ability to get yardage in chunks. A dink-and-dunk offense is useless behind a bad offensive line largely because of the need to sustain long drives, which is next to impossible when the front can’t keep the quarterback upright.
It’s why the Falcons’ decision to sign the big, slow wide receiver by the name of Brian Robiskie after Jones’ 2013 injury was a massive mistake that symbolized exactly why their season tanked. That coaching staff’s inability to identify a glaring need and the front office’s inability to procure a talented option epitomized the failures that would beset the organization the following offseason and lead to the demise of former head coach Mike Smith.
Addressing Weaknesses a Strength of New Staff
One of the things I’ve written about throughout this offseason is how this new staff headed by Quinn has done a better job of addressing problems. That was also represented in their decision to grab a quarterback this past week in Rex Grossman to hopefully upgrade the spot behind Ryan.
While it’s not a forgone conclusion that Grossman will win the backup quarterback position ahead of Sean Renfree in this week’s preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens, it does at least indicate that the Quinn-led regime recognizes an area of weakness.
There’s no doubt that the offensive line is the most glaring area of weakness currently on the Falcons roster. Thus the expectation is that at some point between now and the beginning of the regular season on September 14, the Falcons will similarly address that weakness.
Because of that expectation coupled with the fact that Jones remains healthy today, it results in myself not being in “panic mode” over the Falcons’ current blocking issues. It’s clear that the Falcons’ blocking is a work in progress, but until the line looks as bad as it did on Saturday in a real game that counts, it’s not worth sweating.