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

Word of Muth: Welcome to Atlanta

Word of Muth: Welcome to Atlanta
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Falcons beat the Panthers last Sunday 31-24. It's always good to beat a divisional rival, but I'm sure their offensive line was particularly happy with how they did it. They gave up zero sacks. Their two running backs averaged over 6 yards a carry across 25 combined rushes. And they ran for two touchdowns as a team. That's a pretty good day's work for an offensive line.

A big reason I wanted to write about the Falcons to begin with this season was because of their running game, and in particular how much they run outside zone. I certainly wasn't disappointed when I put Game Pass on to review this week's game. It was a stretch clinic.

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At this point I'm sure most people reading this are aware, but it's worth repeating: big plays on outside zone almost always happen to the back side. Atlanta is fine on the front side here, and center Alex Mack (51) and left guard Wes Schweitzer (71, filling in for Andy Levitre, who suffered a torn triceps during this game, ending his season) do a nice job of widening the defensive tackle (Kyle Love, 93) and even finishing him to the ground. But this this play is made on the back side.

First, I want to say this is a great job by Austin Hooper (81) at tight end. It's not a devastating block, but it's a tough one to make. That defensive end (Wes Horton, 96) is slanting to beat Hooper across his face (notice Luke Kuechly, 59, is clearly playing the outside gap), but Hooper does just enough to cut him off and keep him out of the play. It starts with a great first step, opening his hips but gaining a little ground doing it, and then he rips through with his far arm and drives forward/upfield to keep himself from getting crossfaced. This may not look that tough, but there aren't a lot of tight ends who can make this block and be a real threat in the passing game. Hooper did both on Sunday.

The right guard and tackle (Brandon Fusco, 65, and Ryan Schraeder, 73) also do a great job on their combo block. Fusco does an awesome job of throwing just a sharp jab, almost like a stiff arm, to the defensive tackle (Vernon Butler, 92) before climbing. That jab turned the defender's shoulders enough that Schraeder could get his head across and cut him off. Again, just like Hooper's block, it's not a dominating block by Schraeder, but the Falcons have succeeded in cutting a defender off from his gap. That's how you create seams in the defense for the backs to hit. This is a great-looking play.

That's what the play looks like when it's blocked great and executed perfectly. What I've always appreciated about outside zone though is that even when it's just blocked OK, it can put a ton of pressure on the defense to be perfect.

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Now, that might be a hold on Mack against Kuechly. He seems to turn Kuechly's shoulders a bit, which is a no-no, but it was quick hold if it was one at all. The refs didn't call it, so we aren't going to focus on it. If you're a Panthers fan, however, you are allowed to call BS in the comments.

The Falcons really only get two blocks that I'd call above average: Andy Levitre's (67) cut block at left guard, which didn't get his man (Kawann Short, 99) down but stuck him in place, and Schraeder's block at right tackle, where he widens the defensive end (Horton) a ton. At right guard, Fusco gets it handed to him a little bit, but because Schraeder widens the defensive end so much, the gap that Dontari Poe (95) is supposed to play is now like 7 yards wide, and Poe can't quite make the play.

And off of two above-average blocks, the Falcons bust a huge run. Mack runs his ass off (and possibly holds a bit) to stay with Kuechly, but he maintains contact throughout the play, and it's really hard to tackle someone with a 315-pound guy pushing on you. The Panthers played this pretty well -- no-one lost gap integrity -- but even when you do that, you're left trying to make a tackle running laterally with a Pro Bowl center shoving you. That's tough sledding.

It wasn't all outside zone for the Falcons on Sunday. They sprinkled in some other concepts and ran a lot of them effectively. They ran a nifty counter trey scheme from shotgun. They ran a toss bunch crunch for decent yards. And they also went to some inside zone. The common denominator with all their run schemes, though, was Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith running their butts off.

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The first thing you'll notice is that the Panthers are outnumbered here. They try to get a guy in the box late, but at the snap they have six defenders for seven blockers. That's easy money for Atlanta.

This is another play that is blocked pretty well -- I think just about any back in the league could have gained 5 by sticking it right off the inside cheek of the right tackle -- but Atlanta's backs are taking what's there and getting more than that consistently. Tevin Coleman absolutely exposes the Carolina cornerback (#NeverBlockCorners) in the open field and busts another long run for the Falcons.

Any time a running game struggles people know they can blame the offensive line, but having backs who can turn 5-yard gains into 20-yard gains is the only way you're ever going to have big-time rushing statistics in the NFL. You're not just going to kick a front seven's ass for 6 yards a pop all game. You need some chunks, and backs making people miss (or wide receivers making big blocks) is how that happens.

It wasn't just the running game that was clicking for Atlanta. The offensive line also did a nice job in pass protection and didn't allow a single sack. A good bit of that was Matt Ryan getting rid of the ball quickly, but I thought the pass pro was solid all day, with the exception of the tight ends combining to force a hurry/pick on a play we won't review.

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This is a nice blitz pick-up that gives Matt Ryan a chance to show off the legs that led to two, count 'em, two rushing touchdowns this weekend. I really like what Fusco does here at right guard. You see a lot of young linemen see a blitz and freeze in place and wait for the blitzer to be the aggressor. That's Shaq Thompson (54), a 240-pound dude with a head of steam; if you wait for him he'll knock your dick in the dirt. Fusco gets aggressive here and engages the blitzer with some force. He gets a good punch and widens Thompson to create the lane for Ryan.

I also think Schweitzer does a good job here. Once he passes his looping man off to Jake Matthews (70) he comes back inside to help. Now here, Mack didn't need any help because he's a pro, but it was good instincts by Schweitzer. If your defensive tackle is looping outside like that (and the defensive end is dropping) it means there's a blitz coming from the other side, and it can't hurt to try to get over there and firm it up. An encouraging play from the guy who will be replacing an injured Levitre for the rest of the year.


8 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2018, 5:36am

2 Re: Word of Muth: Welcome to Atlanta

Great article, as always.

I wouldn't say that he tackled him, but it definitely looks to me like a hold. Mack grabs his arm as Kuechly bounces off the block, and the hold is strong enough to whip his shoulders off their original orientation.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Welcome to Atlanta

I look forward to these writeups every week, Ben. Probably my favorite column anywhere. I am also a Panthers fan and am calling BS btw

5 Re: Word of Muth: Welcome to Atlanta

On running plays Shaq Thompson seemed to be out of place several times. In at least one case, he kept Luke from flowing to the hole, thus taking them BOTH out of the play. I didn't think I would miss Thomas Davis this much. (re: BS - I think that if that game had been played at BofA, that play would have been called Holding...)

7 Re: Word of Muth: Welcome to Atlanta

I'm curious how much the flu and the effect of the hurricane slowed down the Panther defense just enough to let Atlanta have such a great day with them. Did it seem to others that the plays were blocked better, were the Panthers out of position, not staying on their assignments, or were they doing the right things, just a step too slow?

8 Re: Word of Muth: Welcome to Atlanta

There's also an uncalled hold on Schraeder against Butler in the third gif showing Coleman's cutback run. It was more obvious on the broadcast angle where you could see his hands, but you can see it here, too. Butler (92) starts to pull away from Schraeder toward the cutback lane when suddenly his momentum stops. Then Coleman is by him and suddenly he can run again. Gotta call BS on that one, too.