2012 Atlanta Falcons: Offensive Line Will Become a Strength, Lead to Playoff Win
The Atlanta Falcons have lost their only three playoff games in the past three years. The biggest weakness of those teams, offensive line, will be a strength in 2012 and lead the Falcons to their first playoff win since Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have been in Atlanta.
After going 13-3 in 2012 with a top offensive line in 2012, the Falcons regressed in 2011 after losing Harvey Dahl. Open competition is a theme for the Falcons in 2012 and the offensive line is no exception. Also with the additions of Lamar Holmes, Peter Konz and Pat Hill, the offensive line will be a main strength for the Falcons again in 2012.
The Falcons were one of the best teams in terms of pass blocking in the 2010 season, but were even better as a run-blocking team relying heavily on the push generated behind right guard Harvey Dahl. However, after the lockout, the Falcons lost Dahl to the Rams and in 2011 their run blocking slipped heavily, and pass blocking wasn't too far behind it.
That won't be the case in 2012. The majority of the breakdowns on the Falcons offensive line were caused primarily by not having a true starting-caliber right guard. The Falcons were relying on second-year man Joe Hawley and career backup Garrett Reynolds. However, they drafted Peter Konz in the second round of the 2012 draft to play the right guard spot long term as he is reminiscent of Dahl.
The competitions are going to be the most important part of the offensive line. As many people have noted, the Falcons have a lot of improvements to make, but there could be as many as three new starters on the offensive line in the 2012 season and even multiple starters as the season progresses at some of the spots.
The positions on the line that are going to have very little competition will be the left guard and right tackle spots. At left guard, Justin Blalock is one of the top 11 guards in the NFL, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller. While Blalock is in the top 11, Tyson Clabo is the third-best right tackle in the NFL and both men are likely the starters in 2012 at their positions.
Will the Falcons get their first playoff win under Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan in 2012?
Right guard is going to be one of the most interesting battles this year as second-round pick Peter Konz, free-agent signing Vince Manuwai and team veteran Mike Johnson will be the three competing for the starting role. In the long term, expect Peter Konz to win the starting job as he will help open the rushing lanes needed and is better in the screen game than Manuwai or Johnson are.
Left tackle is an interesting scenario as well. The Falcons are going to have three members of the team compete there in third-round pick Lamar Holmes and veterans Sam Baker and Will Svitek. Svitek started the last half of last year and was an excellent pass-blocker.
Baker was the initial starter, though, and while a good run-blocker, he has been one of the worst pass-blockers for the Falcons in years. The dark horse of this entire battle is 2012 third-round pick Lamar Holmes. He has the drive, intelligence and raw athleticism to start in the NFL right away, however, expect Svitek or Baker to start the year at left tackle with Holmes winning the job later on.
There is an intriguing situation going on at center as well. While veteran Todd McClure re-signed with the Falcons this offseason, his contract was nothing more than a veteran minimum deal. However, people in the media haven't given much credit to Joe Hawley, someone who has been with the team for the past two years and could start in 2012.
Hawley is only 23 years old and has impressed the coaching staff with intelligence over the past two years. He has a 6'3", 300-pound frame and could end up as the next Todd McClure for the Falcons as someone who will start for over 10 years in the center of the offensive line with his durability, hard work and ability to lead the line.
Coach Hill is a longtime college coach and is known as one of the best offensive line teachers in the coaching ranks and is someone who values intelligence and hard work in his linemen. Hill is also going to help with the strength of the line by simplifying the scheme and focusing more on the basics. AtlantaFalcons.com's Daniel Cox quoted coach Hill as saying:
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I didn’t come here to split the atom...I came here to really work on fundamentals. At this level you have a chance to really tweak a person’s game. It’s like being a swing coach for a golfer...Here you’re trying to develop technique to help each one of your players get better.
By focusing on fundamentals, Coach Hill will lead the Falcons offensive line to greater heights. There were times in 2011 that the team just looked lost in pass blocking, and with a much simpler scheme, the Falcons should be able to win the battle against opposing teams' pass rush in 2012.
Another thing Hill is trying to change is the "Dirtbags" moniker that was given to the line by Justin Tuck before the playoffs (via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). AtlantaFalcons.com's Jay Adams quoted Coach Hill as saying he just wanted the offensive line to "play hard:"
I just say two words. I want them to ‘play hard.’ I don’t talk about being nasty, I don’t talk about being dirty; I want them to play hard. You play from snap to whistle and you play with great fundamentals. I’m not into being dirty. I’m not into being cheap. I’m into great fundamentals, and when that ball is snapped, you play until the whistle blows and you go back, you shake that play off and do it again. That’s all I care about. I want to play hard, and playing hard to me means great fundamentals and playing as hard as you can within the rules of the game. I don’t want a reputation of being nasty or anything like that. What I want to do, as a coach, when people look at your team or your position, the guys you work with, I want people to be able to say, ‘They play hard.’ I don’t want them to be saying, ‘Well, those guys are dirty’ or ‘Those guys are cheap.’ I want them to say, ‘That team plays very, very hard. That unit plays very, very hard.’ … When that ball is snapped, I want to knock people off the ball. I want to play with good fundamentals. When the play is over, I get back to the huddle. I’m not talking; I’m working. That’s all I want to do is work.
Hill doesn't care about dirty. He doesn't care about cheating, he just wants his players to come in and crush people off the line. He wants his players to be known as the toughest, hardest working group of offensive linemen in the NFL. And in doing this, Hill could have the best line in the NFL if he has them coached correctly.
With the influx of talent at offensive line coach, in addition to the addition of two highly important rookies and the return of a few players from injury, the Falcons could truly have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. And when the offensive line becomes a strength, the Falcons will win playoff games.
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