Can the Atlanta Falcons Offensive Line Survive the St. Louis Rams' Onslaught?

Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterSeptember 14, 2013

Sep 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) gets sacked for a loss by New Orleans Saints linebacker Parys Haralson (98) during the third quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

Anyone who watched the Atlanta Falcons’ Week 1 game in New Orleans saw an offensive line that fell apart at the pressure the Saints brought from their new 3-4 defensive scheme.

Matt Ryan was sacked three times, but the Saints' pass rush did much more damage than that. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ryan was hit four times and hurried 18 times.

The Falcons only ran 56 total plays on offense, and Ryan dropped back just 42 times. He was under duress just over 52 percent of the time (18 quarterback hurries plus four quarterback hits on 42 dropbacks).

Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker was the only starting quarterback in the NFL who was under more pressure in Week 1 than Ryan.

Even more troubling for the Falcons than their inability in Week 1 to protect Ryan is the fact that in Week 2, the St. Louis Rams bring a much better pass rush.

The Rams pulled down Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer four times last week and tied for the league lead with 52 sacks in 2012.

St. Louis has bookend defensive ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn who tallied 11.5 and 10.5 sacks last season, respectively. If neither can reach the opposing quarterback, backup defensive end William Hayes can. Hayes notched seven sacks last season and recorded one last week against Arizona.

Atlanta fans shouldn’t get too thankful that all three play the same position. The Rams find ways to get all three of these pass-rushing ends on the field at the same time. Sometimes they blanket the defensive line with pass-rushing options.

 “It’s tough,” said Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter on Sept. 10. “They can put four really good pass-rushers out there. A lot of teams are going to that, but St. Louis is a team that has four good pass-rushers at end and they got off to a fast start this year.”

Quinn had three sacks last week against Arizona and used his immense speed to get around Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown.

Tyson Langland, who covers the NFC West here at Bleacher Report, penned a fantastic article about Quinn after his three-sack performance. Before you settle in to watch the Falcons host the Rams, read Langland’s piece to see if Quinn might be the next great sack artist in the NFL.

To make matters worse for the Falcons, their starting left tackle, Sam Baker, missed practice Wednesday and Thursday and was limited in Friday’s walkthrough. Baker is listed as questionable for the Week 2 game Sunday.

Koetter said Tuesday that he expects a huge jump in performance from Week 1 to Week 2 from his offensive line. The experience they gained at “regular-season speed” for the first time was definitely beneficial. But the Falcons offensive line is still inexperienced.

Center Peter Konz started at right guard last season but moved to center when Todd McClure retired. Even though center is his natural position, he’s still only got 56 snaps of professional experience snapping the football. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Konz graded out at a minus-2.0, but most of his issues were with run-blocking.

Right guard Garrett Reynolds was Atlanta’s best offensive lineman, according to PFF. His 2.5 grade was a huge boost, especially because he only played six games last season before falling to a back injury and landing on injured reserve.

Right tackle Lamar Holmes was PFF’s lowest-rated Falcons lineman with a minus-4.6 grade. Holmes started for the first time in his career after missing all but seven snaps last year to a preseason injury.

Konz, Reynolds and Holmes are still getting their legs underneath them and establishing a bond as a cohesive unit. That will take some time, but improvement should be noticeable every week.

Losing Baker, however, could slow that coming together of the offensive line. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently signed tackle Jeremy Trueblood said he was ready to fill in for Baker if Baker was unable to play. "I think I’ve got most everything down," he said. "I feel really comfortable out there."

The AJC reported that Trueblood was playing right tackle during practice with the first team with Holmes over at left tackle. That could mean Holmes, with 63 professional snaps to his credit, might have to block Quinn, who destroyed Arizona’s left tackle last week.

In addition to the troubles Holmes moving to left tackle pose, if Baker can’t play, from a cohesion standpoint, it means that only one Atlanta lineman, Justin Blalock, would have more than 14 starts with the Falcons.

The Falcons will definitely attempt to shift the line and use scheme changes to help the linemen. Expect receivers to stay in and help or use chip blocks prior to leaving on passing routes. That, along with the natural progression from Week 1 to Week 2, should help.

But the fact that the St. Louis pass rush is more accomplished than what the Falcons saw last week in New Orleans could mean that any improvement gained will be negated by a better defensive front.

Ryan might have to run for his life again in Week 2, just like he did against the Saints.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.