Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Falcons in Free Fall

Word of Muth: Falcons in Free Fall
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Atlanta Falcons lost to the Baltimore Ravens last week by a score of 26-16 in an ugly game. It was the fourth loss in a row for Atlanta and it dropped them to 4-8 on the season. The Falcons offense hasn't scored 20 points or more in over a month, and 2018 is a lost season for Atlanta.

In what was a terribly disappointing year overall for the franchise, it might be safe to say that the offensive line was the biggest disappointment. I really believe that along with injuries, the performance of what was supposed to be one of best units in the league has been the most obvious reason for Atlanta's struggles. It just hasn't been the same group that has been so good in recent years. It's rare that a team brings back most of its successful offensive core, adds an impact first-rounder, and plays demonstrably worse.

Last Sunday's game was actually a decent microcosm of both the Falcons season as a whole and its late swoon. The biggest plays of the game happened at or behind the line of scrimmage, and Atlanta came up on the short end both times. The first play we're going to look at was the failed fourth down in the first half.

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It looks like the Falcons are just trying to straight wedge-block this. The key to the play is the double-team of center Alex Mack (51) and left guard Wes Schweitzer (71) getting their asses kicked by Michael Pierce (97). Look at how much penetration they give up in that first GIF. Pierce does a great job of getting off the ball quickly and dipping his shoulder to split the double-team just enough. When you can get in between two guys like that, they start pushing against each other to keep the defender from totally breaking through, instead of being able to try to push the defender back. Now the offense is pushing east and west, but the defender can keep pushing north. Great play by Pierce to penetrate, stop the running back's feet, and spill the runner out to his help.

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Getting stuffed on fourth-and-inches in a low-scoring game is a kick in the gut, but giving up a sack/fumble for a touchdown is an absolute killer. Now, the pass-rusher who forces the fumble (Patrick Onwuasor, 48) belongs to the running back (Ito Smith, 25), but there's a lot of stuff going poorly up front as well. Basically, it was another rough rep for Mack, who had a really bad night. Here, he's getting bull-rushed by Brandon Williams (98) and ends up right on top of Matt Ryan's front leg. If Mack is better on this play, maybe there's room for Ryan to step up to avoid the guy off the edge.

The Falcons had a hard time with the Ravens' pass rush all day. There was consistent pressure up the gut and off the edge throughout Sunday's game. Sometimes, like the play above and below, there was pressure from both on the same play.

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It's never good when you don't know which rusher spooked the quarterback. I think it's Za'Darius Smith (90) beating Schweitzer that forces Ryan out initially, but it could be Terrell Suggs (55) too. Schweitzer gets bull-rushed because his hands are awful. He looks like one of those guys on the airport runway waving in a plane, except the plane is Smith and the runway is his chest. His hands are just way too wide to keep the rusher off of his frame. Compare how Schweitzer uses his hands with how left tackle Jake Matthews (70) uses his. It's night and day.

Of course, Matthews wasn't perfect all game either, as we'll get to. The Falcons couldn't pass-block, the couldn't run-block, they couldn't get open, and frankly they just couldn't move the ball. It was a beatdown. There were a lot of issues, but if I had to put their consistent failure to generate any kind of offense on one thing, it would be the penetration Baltimore consistently generated.

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It seems like Baltimore was beating Atlanta off the ball all night. It was a huge issue and led to constant presence in the backfield. Maybe Ryan wasn't changing up the snap count enough. Matthews certainly didn't help himself with a bad-looking false step right off the ball. He doesn't gain an inch with the first step.

It's safe to say not gaining ground was par for the course for Atlanta's offense. In all, they ran 45 plays for just 131 yards. They were 2-for-9 on third downs. If this was like college and sack yardage counted against your rushing total (a stupid rule, but bear with me) they would have finished with zero yards on 18 attempts. It was a brutal performance.

I'm not sure where Atlanta goes from here up front. This is a veteran unit that was supposed to be a strength. Losing Andy Levitre hurt, but I don't think anyone was expecting this. Matthews is a good player who just signed a new deal; I don't think he's going anywhere. I think Ryan Schraeder will be back as well. But the interior offensive line could see some turnover, particularly at the guard positions.


2 comments, Last at 07 Dec 2018, 2:00pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Falcons in Free Fall

Another wonderful piece, Ben. Good use of the GIFs, nice detail. It sounds like a lot of this is bad technique rather than sliding physical skills. Do you have any idea why Atlanta coaching would be falling off?