The Falcons’ offensive line allowed QB Matt Ryan to be sacked six times in Atlanta’s Week 12 loss at New Orleans.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn could have used his common phrase of “I like the group that we have” when asked about the Falcons’ offensive line following last Thursday’s 31-17 loss to the rival New Orleans Saints.
Instead, Quinn avoided such jargon and admitted he would look into the possibility of making changes.
Of course, Quinn wasn’t ready to reveal exactly who would be benched — if anyone — when pressed on the topic the day after the game. But Quinn acknowledged veteran Zane Beadles, listed as the backup right tackle to Ryan Schraeder, and Ty Sambrailo, listed as the backup to left tackle Jake Matthews, would be considered for starting roles somewhere along the offensive line.
Beadles, signed as a free agent after spending last season with San Francisco, has 115 career starts. He’s practiced at tackle, guard and center since joining the Falcons on Oct. 30. The 2010 second-round pick of the Denver Broncos lost his starting left guard spot with the 49ers last season, then played four games at right tackle before being released after the season.
Meanwhile, Sambrailo has been the swing tackle for the Falcons this season. The 2015 second-round pick of Denver was traded to the Falcons from the Broncos in exchange for a 2018 fifth-round draft pick. Shoulder and elbow problems marred Sambrailo’s time in Denver. He started games at left tackle, right tackle and right guard for the Broncos.
Quinn said it’s not about opening up jobs because of competition, but it’s more a factor of shaking up the lineup heading into Sunday’s 1 p.m. game with the Baltimore Ravens.
“Those are the two that we’ll consider, if we do want to go down that road,” Quinn said, speaking of Beadles and Sambrailo. “Add some reps into some guys [heading] into the game. That’s something that we discussed here [Friday]. … And if there’s a thought that we can do it better, then we’ll certainly try to do that.”
It’s hard to point the blame at one specific player when dissecting issues on the offensive line. As a unit, the Falcons have failed to find success on a consistent basis the entire season.
You could blame it on the Falcons watching starting left guard Andy Levitre (triceps) and starting right guard Brandon Fusco (ankle) go down with season-ending injuries. Sure, that could be a factor, but neither is a player anyone would call dominant. What the Falcons do miss is the continuity they had during the 2016 Super Bowl run, when they started the same five linemen in all 16 games.
The injuries to Levitre and Fusco forced Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland into starting roles, and both are probably better suited as backups. Schweitzer lost the starting right guard battle to Fusco entering the season. Garland’s troubles contending with Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins surely showed up in the film review of Thursday’s Week 12 game.
The offensive line’s shortcomings, as a whole, were magnified in the loss to the Saints as the Falcons surrendered six sacks and averaged 1.6 yards per rush while accumulating just 26 rushing yards. The Falcons had seven plays where they needed 2 yards or less to either pick up a first down or score a touchdown. Three were incompletions by Matt Ryan, two were Ito Smith being stopped for no gain, and one was Ryan being sacked for a 4-yard loss and fumbling the ball as the Saints brought the blitz up the middle. There were too many Saints for the Falcons to block on that play.
“Obviously when you have a run-game performance like we did, there’s a lot to look at and a lot that needs our attention and our work, because that was considerably below the line,” Quinn. “That was also the same thing in pass protection. To have six sacks in the game and have the run game that we did, that’s not going to get the job done.”
The Falcons obviously miss the elusive ability of two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, who made the offensive line look better at times. Freeman remains on injured reserve coming off groin surgery and would be eligible to return for the Dec. 23 game at Carolina. But with the Falcons (4-7) all but eliminated from playoff contention, it probably doesn’t make much sense to bring Freeman or Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones back.
Quinn still has the opportunity to get a better feel for where his line stands over the Falcons’ final five games. Alex Mack remains the anchor, although the five-time Pro Bowl center probably hasn’t had his best season while trying to compensate for the lack of talent next to him on the interior. Schraeder knows he has had trouble with speed rushers and hopes to resolve those issues. And Matthews got a five-year, $75 million extension, so the expectations of him are higher than anyone else on the line.
The O-line will continue to be a focal point. The Falcons still have to face Baltimore and Carolina — teams that rank in the NFL’s top 10 in sacks per pass play, and the Panthers also boast a top-10 run defense.
No matter how the line performs to end the season, the Falcons have to find a quality lineman or two in the 2019 draft.