FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta Falcons center Todd McClure hopes he doesn’t have to offer another apology to quarterback Matt Ryan.
After Ryan was harassed repeatedly in last week’s 16-13 loss at Tampa Bay, McClure wanted him to know that the offensive line appreciates his toughness in the pocket.
Ryan has been hit 21 times, according to NFL statistics, and sacked 13 times — third-most in the NFL.
McClure told Ryan on the plane ride home from Tampa that the line is working hard to improve.
“I told him that last week on the plane,” McClure said Thursday. “We respect what he does, stepping in there time after time to throw the ball. It’s got to be a tough situation for him to be in, and he’s handled it really well.”
Personnel changes could come shortly. As the Falcons (1-2) prepare to visit Seattle (1-2) on Sunday, coach Mike Smith is promising a full evaluation on each starter and reserve.
McClure, Atlanta’s starting center since 1999, doesn’t lack job security, and it’s likely the same goes for right tackle Tyson Clabo and left guard Justin Blalock, each of whom signed new contracts in training camp.
Smith won’t say whether left tackle Sam Baker and right guard Garrett Reynolds are in jeopardy of losing their starting jobs, but they clearly have competition.
Neither Baker, who is nursing a sore ankle, nor Reynolds has looked impressive through the first three games.
Baker, a starter since Atlanta drafted him late the first round of 2008, struggled against fierce pressure from Chicago, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay and faces a challenge from Will Svitek, a sixth-year veteran in his third season as a Falcons backup.
Reynolds, a fifth-round pick by the Falcons in 2009, won the right guard job after Harvey Dahl, widely considered one of the league’s nastiest linemen, signed as a free agent with St. Louis.
But despite a key block against Philadelphia that helped Michael Turner break off a 61-yard run that set up the winning touchdown, Reynolds is getting pushed on the depth chart by Joe Hawley, who made his first two career starts last month as McClure recovered from a knee injury.
Smith, line coach Paul Boudreau and coordinator Mike Mularkey are considering other scenarios, too.
“It’s different from the offseason because you’ve got more snaps in your practices and you’re in a preparation mode,” Smith said. “Once the season starts, you don’t have as many snaps to make an evaluation, but we’ve told our guys from the very beginning that we’re going to have open competition at all times.”
One of the bigger obstacles facing Ryan is lacking the time necessary to set his feet in the pocket, particularly during the first half.
The Falcons have yet to score on an opening possession and were down 16-3 at halftime at both Chicago and Tampa Bay. Against the Buccaneers, Ryan was sacked inside the Atlanta 20-yard line and lost two fumbles in the first half.
Fortunately for the Falcons, their defense held Tampa Bay to just three points after the turnovers, but McClure and Baker believe Ryan never should have been put in such a predicament to begin with.
“I mean it’s been a rough year so far,” Baker said. “We definitely haven’t been protecting as well, so right now all we can do is focus on fixing it.”
McClure hopes fans will stay patient and understand that, regardless of personnel changes, the linemen are competing hard.
“I just think it’s not time to panic right now,” McClure said. “We’ve played three games, and there’s room for improvement. It’s a long season, you know? You just can’t start throwing everything overboard and abandoning the ship and think it’s going down. We’re going to keep working hard to get it fixed. If we can have some success, this team can have some success.”
Without an early lead, Atlanta struggles to incorporate Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner, who was held to 20 yards on 11 carries at Tampa Bay. Teams that fall behind traditionally must pass the ball to catch up as the game wears on, and the Falcons’ offense isn’t designed to throw 112 times and run 58 as it has this season.
Ryan loves it when the offense starts fast, and it’s no wonder why. In their fourth season under Smith, the Falcons are 28-1 when leading at halftime, 4-15 when trailing.
“We just need to execute a little better, and that’s what it comes down to,” Ryan said. “Our guys are playing hard up front. We just need to execute a little better, myself included. The ball needs to come out. You can’t keep hanging on to it back there, at some point the ball has got to come out. I think I need to be better. I think those guys up front will get better. We’ll do all that, but it’s a joint effort.”