Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – May 19, 2014

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

I really like the Jake Matthews pick.

I’m optimistic that he’s going to be one of those foundation players for the Atlanta Falcons offense for years to come. The team’s offense will be known primarily by quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and Matthews.

The Falcons are going to need Matthews to hit the ground running as far as his transition to the NFL goes. There is a leadership void in regards to their offensive line thanks to the recent departures of center Todd McClure and offensive tackle Tyson Clabo, and Matthews will be counted upon to fill some of that void in the coming years.

And whether or not he can fill that void will depend on him playing well, and doing so relatively soon.

I have a great deal of optimism that Matthews will be a Falcon for a very long time, assuming he can stay healthy, similar to McClure, who played 14 years with the team.

Like Other Quality Tackles, Matthews Could Fly Under Radar

As I said in my scouting report of Matthews, I’m not convinced he’ll be one of the premier offensive tackles in the league but I do believe he’ll settle himself to become one of the better ones.

The nature of playing along the offensive line tends to veer towards anonymity, as we see with other top tackles. Andrew Whitworth and Michael Roos of the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans respectively, are two of the better left tackles in the league but are by no means household names. Both players are approaching the end of their respective careers, but have been models of consistency over the past eight to nine years.

At any point over that span, a ranking of the top 10 offensive tackles that excluded both of them would have been remiss. Yet they each have only one Pro Bowl appearance during their combined 17 years of play.

Both have been eclipsed in that span by the likes of Joe Thomas (seven Pro Bowl bids), Jason Peters (six total and two while with the Buffalo Bills), Jake Long (four), Ryan Clady (three), D’Brickashaw Ferguson (three) and Matt Light (three) as AFC Pro Bowl tackles.

Several of those guys have the benefit of being high draft picks and/or playing in larger markets that make them a little more prominent to the football-watching public, giving them better odds than either Whitworth or Roos in terms of winning the popularity contest that is often the Pro Bowl.

Like Roos and Whitworth, Matthews may be hard-pressed to distinguish himself from a solid group of tackles currently in the NFC moving forward. Long, Trent Williams (Washington Redskins), Tyron Smith (Dallas Cowboys), Joe Staley (San Francisco 49ers), Russell Okung (Seattle Seahawks) and Matt Kalil (Minnesota Vikings) form a group of relatively young, prominent tackles all vying for a couple of spots on the NFC Pro Bowl squad.

But that might be just getting a little ahead of myself in regards to the Falcons new tackle. The games have yet to be played and until they do, any talk of future Pro Bowls is very premature.

Matthews Could Be Stabilizer Up Front

But I do believe that Matthews will bolster the Falcons offensive line. Changes to the offensive line have been a topic I’ve discussed numerous times in these weekly columns over the past year or so.

I believe that in order to build a good line, you need to have a couple of really good blockers that stabilize the unit for you. Good offensive lines almost always seem to have two or more guys that can be trusted to consistently win their matchups week-in and week-out. That allows the team to focus more attention on shoring up the weaker links by using backs and tight ends to chip, or to adjust and roll their protections to help compensate.

An offensive line is a unit and often considered only as good as its weakest link. It just becomes a lot easier for teams to deal with weaker links if there are a couple of stronger links to balance things out.

The problem for the Falcons is that they have by and large had nothing but weak links making up their front five in recent years. It wasn’t that long ago that Justin Blalock and Sam Baker were considered the weakest links on the starting line, and yet the team opted to reward them with long-term deals.

I’ve harped on the team’s past poor decisions in regards to building up the line, and thus I’ll spare you from another rant. But picking Matthews hopefully is the first step in several steps that will help solidify the unit.

Unlike the rest of the Falcons starters, Matthews has the potential to be one of those reliable stabilizers mentioned earlier. Right guard Jon Asamoah could potentially be considered that too, although it remains to be seen if the Falcons will make the necessary adjustments to maximize Asamoah’s ability here in Atlanta.

As I wrote when scouting Asamoah earlier this offseason, I believe he’s a player that excels in a zone-blocking scheme. As a 6’3″ 305-pound guard, he’s not the biggest guy out there and he’s not someone that can consistently create push off the ball. The exact same can be said of Matthews, and really all of the Falcons blockers.

Many fans probably don’t really grasp the difference between a zone-blocking line and a man-blocking. The simplest way of differentiating is that zone-blockers block a specific area while man-blockers take on a specific defender on any given play.

Basics of Zone vs. Man Blocking

Where that distinction starts to become applicable is in the types of run plays each scheme has. Typically a zone scheme will want its blockers to get on the move and do a lot of east-west movement. The “bread and butter” play of the zone-blocking scheme is the stretch play. Here is an example of what a stretch play looks like (courtesy of Steelers Depot):

The image is that of the Pittsburgh Steelers giving up a nine-yard gain to Jamaal Charles and the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012. You can even see Asamoah, lined up at right guard, get to the second level and block a Steelers linebacker (50).

Contrast that to one of the more defining plays of a man-blocking scheme which is the off-tackle “Power O” run play (courtesy of Inside the Film Room):

The above image shows a time where the San Francisco 49ers are unable to effectively run this play and their back is stopped for a loss, mainly because Seattle Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant is able to beat his block and get into the backfield.

Man blocking could be referred to getting “hats on hats” and as the above play shows, if you cannot do that effectively, you’re doomed. And that’s basically been the Falcons problem over the past few years.

Most teams are not strictly one or the other and will do a steady mix of both zone and man-blocking. But most NFL teams do one more than the other. And over the past six years under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have primarily been a man-blocking team.

And it’s one of the reasons why I believe Sam Baker has struggled here in Atlanta. The popular narrative stems from his lack of durability, which certainly are a valid reason for Baker’s struggles. But I believe it also stems from the fact that he’s always been a square peg in a round hole as far as his fit in the blocking scheme.

Baker played in a zone-blocking scheme at Southern California under head coach Pete Carroll, that was very similar to that utilized by the Falcons under famed offensive line coach Alex Gibbs from 2004-06. It’s not a coincidence that when Carroll left USC to come to the pros in 2010, he hired Gibbs as his offensive line coach, and now sports a Gibbs protege in Tom Cable, who worked under Gibbs here in Atlanta, in the same role.

The thing zone-blocking teams typically target with their offensive linemen is intelligence, athleticism and mobility as opposed to power and physicality. In a man-blocking scheme, the latter two things figure in more prominently because it’s more about getting a hat on a defender and moving him off the ball.

It’s not a coincidence that a man-blocking team like the San Francisco 49ers have three former first-round picks on their offensive line, because the ability to excel in that scheme typically requires you to have better talent up front than other teams. One of the reasons why Gibbs preferred later-round picks was because he knew there was less of a premium on the smaller, more agile blockers.

Recent Moves Signal Switch in Blocking Scheme

The acquisitions of Asamoah, Matthews, and the team’s retention of Baker should suggest that the team is intending to use a lot more zone-blocking concepts in their run game this year. They’ve expanded that in recent years under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, but they have still primarily been a man-blocking team.

Not to mention the addition of Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of the draft. Freeman too is the type of runner that would best fit in a zone-blocking scheme similar to Jacquizz Rodgers because he’s a player that is more quick than fast or powerful. The creases, seams, and cutback lanes that get created in a zone-blocking scheme fit more with his style of running than one that is more of a straight-ahead, smashmouth man-blocking scheme that the Falcons have tried (and failed) to run the past few seasons.

And this is one of the chief concerns I have about the Falcons as they move forward. Some of their personnel additions this year suggests that this is a team built to be a zone-blocking team, with additions like Matthews, Asamoah and Freeman this offseason. But the past two years, their moves have been more in line with a powerful, man-blocking scheme. Players like Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes, Phillipkeith Manley and Terren Jones are prominent recent additions that are poor fits in a zone-blocking scheme. All are bigger blockers that lacked the sort of mobility to work well in a zone-blocking scheme.

So it begs the question of whether or not the Falcons are going to be more of a zone-blocking team in the future. Because if they are, it’s apparently been a very recent development that has seemingly only been decided upon in the past six months. If you look back to the team’s decision to elevate Jones from the practice squad to the active roster at the end of last season, such a move is completely incongruous with a planned move to a zone-blocking scheme. If the team knew at that time that they were going to be more of a zone team, then they probably would have been much more willing to let Jones walk after the season because he’s a very poor fit in that scheme.

The argument could be made that at the time, they had not yet hired new offensive line coaches in Mike Tice and Wade Harman. And while neither are strangers to zone-blocking, at least from a historical perspective, they have seemingly preferred bigger, stronger blockers.

And it’s one of the reasons why I’m a little skeptical of the Falcons draft as a whole, because it suggests one thing moving forward that contrasts to what they’ve done up to now. It just raises a lot of questions. Are the Falcons making a major change to their blocking scheme and offensive identity now in Mike Smith’s seventh season or are they just doing what they did with Baker for the previous six years and fitting more square pegs in round holes?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I guess we’ll find out once the games get played.

Problems for Robert Mathis are Microcosm of Problems for NFL

Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Robert Mathis was slapped with a four-game suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs, reportedly a fertility drug that doesn’t help male fertility.

And given recent news about the league making a push for Human Growth Hormone (HGH) testing, it’s worth discussing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve broached the topic of performance-enhancing drugs being in the league and whether or not it’s a big deal.

In light of Mathis’ suspension and the NFLPA dragging their feet on HGH-testing, it does make a cynic like myself believe that the NFL is rife with “dopers.”

It’s fascinating that a 32-year old Robert Mathis had more sacks this past year (19.5) than he did combined the previous two years (17.5). It seems so obvious that he was doping now, but the fact that it did not come up until this positive test sort of indicates the attitudes that the nation and media as a whole have towards doping in the NFL. Either we are comfortably naive or simply apathetic.

And my attitude veers toward the latter, a similar stance that I had last March. I’m not going to be overly judgmental towards NFL players if they are taking performance-enhancers given the toll their bodies take over their careers and the relatively low compensation they receive for it.

The current impasse on why HGH testing hasn’t been implemented is basically fallout from the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Essentially, the players screwed the pooch back in 2011 when they did not negotiate that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell give up his power to oversee discipline. And now the players refuse to pass the HGH testing that they initially agreed to in that CBA negotiation unless Goodell gives up the power of arbitration.

And while I side with the players in believing that Goodell should give up those powers, I also understand the league’s perspective. The players are basically reneging on their previous agreement and if they want Goodell removed they should bring that up at the next CBA negotiations in 2020.

This is exactly why the Steelers were the one team that didn’t approve the CBA and this has become a prominent issue between the league and its players in the time since involving BountyGate and other issues where many believe Goodell has overstepped his bounds.

And it’s a power struggle that seemingly will continue to go on for months if not years as both sides draw their lines in the sand.

In the meantime, it will allow players to continue to “cheat.” So my advice to Mathis is next time, stick to the tried and true HGH when you are trying to get that edge. Or do what the Seahawks do and blame Adderall when you get caught.

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Aaron Freeman
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