by Ben Muth
Due to a couple of requests in the comments section of the last article, I decided to look at the Falcons offensive line this week. I watched their playoff loss to the Giants. Before I get into Atlanta’s front five, however, I have a couple of general thoughts about the game.
The first thing that jumped out was how good the Giants run fits were. Every defensive lineman knew his gap responsibility and maintained it. Even if they got knocked off the ball, which happened more than I would have guessed, they maintained their gap integrity. This allowed the linebackers and defensive backs (safeties in particular) to fill in accordingly. There were never any giant seams for Michael Turner to hit ... and Turner seems to have reached the point of his career where he needs a lot of room to gain serious yards.
The second thing that really jumped out was how little support the Falcons offensive line got from their skill position teammates. The tight ends and fullbacks never generated any movement and had a hard time staying engaged with linebackers and safeties at the second level.
Now that that is out of the way we can focus on the Falcons offensive line. I’ll be honest: they played much better than I would have thought considering their opponents and the final score. I didn’t think there were any real standouts, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. This group may not be the most athletically gifted, but they make up for it with cohesion and a mean streak.
The lineman who I thought struggled the most was Todd McClure. The center got beat a couple of times in pass protection and got very little movement in the ground game on his own. That said, he was asked to do much more than centers usually are. It was pretty clear that any uncovered guard was coached to help out towards the tackles as opposed to inside towards the center, and as a result, McClure was one-on-one in pass protection far more often than most centers are. I thought he had nice footwork in the passing game, but he let his hands get knocked down too frequently. He also had a tendency to lead with his head, which left him off balance at times. Still, considering how often he was by himself, it was a decent effort.
The right guard Joe Hawley struggled a little bit when he was isolated. He gave up a sack in the first half against a bull rush, but he seemed to get better as the game went along, and did a pretty decent job in the running game. Left guard Justin Blalock probably played the best game of anyone. He got the most movement in the running game and wasn't beat in pass protection.
When I spoke about the mean streak earlier, I thought it was the guards who really exemplified it (Blalock in particular). As I said, they were typically helping to the outside when they were uncovered in pass protection. Rather than focus exclusively on preventing sacks, they often took the chance to bury their helmets in the rib cages of defensive ends that were engaged with the tackles. They got a couple of knockdowns like that and it seemed to affect Osi Umenyiora in particular. There were times when a Giants defensive end would see the guard coming to help, then veer wide, outside of his rush lane, to avoid a rib shot.
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Considering the caliber of the defensive ends they were playing against, I felt both tackles played well. Tyson Clabo is a very good run blocker. He isn’t particularly quick off the ball, but once he’s engaged, he takes powerful steps that eat up yardage and drive defenders back slowly. I would describe his pass blocking as intelligent. He’s very aware of when he has help, where it is coming from, and does a nice job of funneling the rusher in that direction. He doesn’t change directions particularly well, but he has strong hands that do a nice job of clamping opponents in his frame.
At left tackle the Falcons had replaced the much-maligned Sam Baker with Will Svitek. Svitek played well for the most part. There were a couple times where he let Umenyiora under his pads on a bull rush, but that was the exception rather than the rule. He changes direction well and does a nice job of finishing blocks when he gets the chance. The red flag, however, would be how much help he got from Blalock. This could be because Baker had struggled for so long that most of the Falcons' play calling is just naturally designed to help the left tackle, or it may be because Svitek is a career backup who was matched up against a really good pass rusher. Either way, it certainly seemed like Atlanta’s pass protection schemes were designed to help Svitek whenever possible, and that has to count as an indictment against his skill.
This game is a nice example of why it’s tough to grade offensive lineman’s individual performances. Take McClure and Svitek. Svitek played better in the sense that he was beat less in the passing game and was generally more effective in the running game, but McClure was on an island while Svitek had the help of what may be Atlanta’s best blocker for most of the game. How much credit do you give or take for circumstance? Unless it’s a situation like James Carpenter in Seattle, where he received a ton of help and still got beat constantly, it’s hard to definitively say who played the better game in a black and white manner.
|Figure 1: Falcons Sneak|
In wrapping up this week, I wanted to talk a little bit about the Falcons short-yardage woes. I hate to fall into the hindsight that coaching-booth geniuses employ, but there were some bizarre play calls. I don’t get why teams shift 847 times and then run a quarterback sneak like the Falcons did on their first fourth-and-inches opportunity (Roughly diagrammed in Figure 1). It’s basically like holding up a giant sign that says "we are running a sneak." The Falcons were stuffed on two different crazy shift sneaks.
That was just an appetizer for the third-and-1 call that really irked me. With about 1:20 left in the third quarter, the Falcons came out in an I-Formation with two tight ends to the right. The Giants were lined up in 4-4 over front with both outside linebackers walked up on the line of scrimmage (the right outside linebacker was actually a safety, but he was walked up on the line and seemed to be treated as an linebacker, so that’s what I’m going with). The defensive end over the left tackle was shifted down inside, which essentially made it a bear front (all three interior linemen covered up).
The play call was a weak outside zone (Figure 2). The way the Falcons block it is to have the left guard and tackle double team up to the playside inside linebacker. The fullback will have the playside outside linebacker. The center has the nose guard, and the backside guard and tackle are responsible for backside defensive tackle and inside linebacker. When a linebacker walks up to the line of scrimmage on the playside of an weak side outside zone, the offense has two options. You can fan out with your offensive line, meaning the left tackle would block the outside linebacker and the guard would be one-on-one with the defensive end. In that case, the fullback takes the inside linebacker. The biggest problem here is that if the defensive end doesn’t slant inside, it is almost impossible for the guard to get an effective block on him. The other option is to have the fullback stick on the outside linebacker and have a collision two yards deep in the backfield. The problem here is that even if the fullback does a great job, he’s still going to be doing a great job on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage.
|Figure 2: Motioning Roddy White|
The Falcons went with Option C: motioning Roddy White in tight and having him block the outside linebacker. The positive is that you can keep the double team on the defensive end, and the block on the outside linebacker is made on the line of scrimmage. The negative is that you have a wide receiver making the key block (setting the edge) on a third-and-1. White is a great player and a fine blocker for a receiver, but running behind him on third-and-1 is like asking an offensive tackle to sit in the zone for a tackle-eligible play on third-and-8. It’s not really fair.
What happened is exactly what you would expect to happen: White got knocked into the backfield, so Turner had to cut it back immediately. Because Turner had to cut back too soon, Svitek’s angle to the linebacker was off and he couldn’t get a good block on him. Combine that with Hawley’s inability to get off the down lineman, and now Turner was being met a yard in the backfield by two linebackers.
Now, the thing that baffles me about this play is the fact that there didn’t seem to be a way Matt Ryan could get out of it when he saw how the Giants were lined up. I laid out above all the ways you can block that look, and none of them sound that appealing. He recognized there was a problem -- that’s why he motioned White down -- but all that leaves you with is a terrible matchup. Someone has to see that look and change the play or call a timeout, because that call never had a shot.