The high-powered Atlanta Falcons offense managed only 17 points in its Week 1 loss at New Orleans in large part due to the fact that Atlanta's offensive line had some major protection issues. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was hit or sacked on nearly a quarter of his dropbacks (hit or sacked nine times on 38 pass attempts). If the Falcons are going to be the Super Bowl contenders they're expected to be, the offensive line play must improve.
We took a look at the game film from last Sunday's game to see exactly what caused Atlanta's protection problems against the New Orleans Saints. In doing so, we picked five key plays for Atlanta's offense that were negatively impacted by the line's inability to adequately protect Matt Ryan.
Let's begin in the first quarter:
First Quarter, 1:37 Left, Falcons 7, Saints 0; 3rd-and-Goal from NO 7
For all of the pregame talk about Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's blitz package, the Saints got the best of the Falcons in the red zone by dropping more defenders into coverage and winning one-on-one battles up front as we see here, where Junior Galette beats Sam Baker on a speed rush.
On this play, the Saints dropped seven defenders into coverage, and they were able to get pressure with four down linemen. Baker was hurt a little by the play design, as it required a five-step drop from Matt Ryan, but if you're an elite offense you expect your left tackle to be able to handle this matchup better than Baker did here. Baker was beaten by Ryan's third step back.
Sure, New Orleans had pretty good coverage, but Harry Douglas flashed open on his out route and Jacquizz Rodgers had a shot at beating Curtis Lofton to the end zone if Ryan had been able to get either one of them the ball.
The Saints didn't get a sack here, but they learned that they could exploit Baker one-on-one and more importantly forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal and a 10-0 lead instead of a more commanding 14-0 lead.
Second Quarter, 0:51 Left, Saints 13, Falcons 10; 2nd-and-10 from NO 47
Junior Galette was at it again late in the second quarter as the Falcons were driving into Saints' territory in hopes of tying the game before halftime. However, here the Falcons' offensive coaching staff (or Matt Ryan, if he called this protection) was to blame for the protection breakdown, not Atlanta's offensive line.
Knowing that Baker was struggling with Galette's speed, the Falcons decided that it was a good idea to isolate tight end Tony Gonzalez on Galette in pass protection on this play. The results were nearly disastrous, as the Falcons were fortunate to avoid a turnover or worse since Galette was virtually untouched on his way to a clean shot on Matt Ryan.
To make matters worse, the Saints ran a late twist that enabled Lamar Holmes' man to beat him and get a hit on Ryan as well. We saw Holmes struggle with stunts and twist in the preseason.
If the Falcons wanted to help Sam Baker with Galette's speed, perhaps a better solution would've been running shorter routes so Ryan could get the ball out quicker (especially in this case when the goal was a field goal). Another possible solution would be to bring in an another offensive linemen for Gonzalez since the tight end wasn't going to run a route on this play anyway. We saw Atlanta do this later on.
3rd Quarter, 5:46 Left, Saints 20, Falcons 17; 2nd-and-9 from ATL 21
This was the first sack that could be credited at least in part to a Rob Ryan blitz, but the most urgent pressure came from Parys Haralson beating Sam Baker one-on-one off of the edge. This play was really alarming to a lot of Falcons fans because Baker really looked overmatched. There isn't much to say about it scheme wise—Baker just got beat.
Rob Ryan compounded the Falcons' problems here by sending a linebacker David Hawthorne on a blitz, and it should be noted that even if Baker had held up against Haralson, the pressure from Hawthorne or even Akiem Hicks (who bull-rushed Lamar Holmes) could've blown this play up.
This sack impacted the Falcons by putting them off schedule at 3rd-and-16 deep in their own territory.
Third Quarter, 4:39 Left, Saints 20, Falcons 17; 1st-and-10 from ATL 45
The Falcons brought in Joe Hawley at tight end to help with the protection up front on this play, possibly in reaction to how ineffective Tony Gonzalez (tough to blame him) was in pass-protection late in the second quarter.
The Saints blitz safety Kenny Vaccaro off of the edge, but the problem comes when Akiem Hicks beats Lamar Holmes inside with a swim move and gets to Matt Ryan for a momentum-killing sack immediately after an impressive Robert Alford interception had given Atlanta the ball back.
Holmes appeared to slide too far inside, and his technique was a little high when he engaged Hicks. Because of this, Holmes was vulnerable to the quick swim move that Hicks employed to beat him to the outside. Once again, Atlanta's offense found itself off-schedule after a sack.
Fourth Quarter, 0:49 Left, Saints 23, Falcons 17; 4th-and-Goal from NO 3
Rob Ryan ended the game the way he started it by dropping back into coverage in the red zone as opposed to bringing pressure. On the game's deciding play, the Saints dropped eight defenders into coverage and chose to rush just three down linemen. Nevertheless, the Saints were still able to get pressure by winning one-on-one battles with Curtis Lofton on Sam Baker and Cameron Jordan beating Peter Konz inside.
Granted the Saints again had good coverage here that was aided by the fact that the defense didn't have much ground to defend, but the pressure forced Matt Ryan to lob a jump-ball into double coverage. With a little more time, one of Atlanta's receivers may have been able to wiggle free, or Ryan could've thrown an over-the-shoulder ball to Jacquizz Rodgers at the pylon.
The Falcons' protection problems against the Saints came primarily from Atlanta's offensive linemen losing one-on-one battles against the Saints pass-rushers. This is a major concern for Atlanta since the Saints' group of rushers is rather pedestrian compared to some of the pass-rush groups the Falcons are going to have to face later in the season (Carolina, San Fran, Washington, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Green Bay).
The good news for Atlanta is that the line play should improve this week at the Georgia Dome since the Falcons offensive line won't have to deal with the kind of crowd noise they experienced in New Orleans.
Moreover, the players aren't deaf. They've certainly heard the criticism, and you can bet that the coaches have shown them this tape and pointed out how often they were simply beaten one-on-one.
It's a week into the 2013 season, and we're asking the question we thought we'd be asking about this year's Falcons team: Will the offensive line keep this team from winning a championship?
All game screenshots are courtesy of NFL Game Rewind. All game stats are via ESPN.com.