In his eight-year NFL career, Andy Levitre hasn’t seen anything like it.
The left guard is one of five Atlanta Falcons offensive linemen to start in every game this season, a rarity considering the physical demands of the position. The Falcons are the only team to enjoy that kind of continuity in 2016, which will culminate with a trip to the Super Bowl tonight.
“You don’t see very many offensive lines that do, stay healthy all year long,” Levitre said. “I think it helps because you get used to the way the calls are and the way you make the calls. I think it helps being around each other and knowing how people operate.”
As a result, Atlanta’s offense has operated better than any other in the NFL.
The Falcons scored a league-best 33.8 points per game during the regular season and upped that average to 40 in dominant playoff wins against the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.
Their final test comes against the New England Patriots, who have given up just 15.7 points per contest in their 18 games, in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston.
“It’s the best defense that we’ve seen in the NFL this year,” Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “The numbers show it. You watch the film, and you see exactly why the numbers are the way they are.”
Fittingly, the Falcons (13-5) counter with the league’s most explosive offense and one of its best offensive lines — a problematic unit in recent seasons. Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times in 2013, third-most in the NFL that season. The following year, Atlanta’s offensive line was decimated by injuries, which this year’s group has largely managed to avoid.
That lack of depth thrust into action 2014 first-round draft pick Jake Matthews and 2013 undrafted free agent Ryan Schraeder at left and right tackle, respectively. The Falcons in 2015 signed veteran right guard Chris Chester and traded for Levitre, and they solidified the offensive line by inking free agent center Alex Mack this past offseason.
Those three acquisitions came under second-year coach Dan Quinn, who has seen firsthand the benefits of having the same set of offensive linemen start all season.
“It has been a whole year since the offseason. A whole training camp together and now through the season, you can imagine how all those reps accumulate, and the technique gets sharper and sharper as you go,” Quinn said prior to his team’s win against the Packers in the NFC championship game Jan. 22.
“We’re at that spot where the communication can just happen on a look where guys can say, ‘Yeah, I know what’s coming.’”
Coaches and players alike have credited Mack, the primary communicator on the offensive line, for bringing the group to a higher level.
The eighth-year center was limited in practice the last two weeks because of a fibula injury above his ankle he suffered against Green Bay, but Quinn suggested that was merely a precautionary measure and that Mack will play in the Super Bowl.
That’s a relief to his fellow offensive linemen.
“He’s smart. He knows his stuff inside and out,” Levitre said. “There’s definitely a reason why they brought him in here, and he has shown it.”
Though superstar skill players Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman often steal the spotlight, the offensive line has been a steadying presence for a franchise making just its second Super Bowl appearance.
The week-to-week consistency across the front five has made in-game communication almost effortless and improved overall play as a unit, players said.
“I would say having all five of us start every game is extremely rare, but I think it’s huge for the success of the team,” Schraeder said. “You can’t put a price value on that.”
The right tackle and his fellow offensive linemen have been on the front line of Ryan’s MVP campaign. Ryan notched career-bests in yards, completion percentage, touchdowns and interceptions this season and has been nearly flawless in the team’s two playoff games.
The offensive line has proved its pass-blocking proficiency, but it’s also capable of clearing running lanes. Atlanta ranked fifth in rushing this season, creating potent offensive balance.
“They’ve been giving Matt some time to throw the ball and giving us holes to run through,” Coleman said. “It’s amazing how these guys prepare work so hard to get everything right. I respect everything about them, and I love running behind them.”
Matthews echoed Coleman’s words, saying the offensive linemen have made such big leaps throughout the Falcons’ Super Bowl run simply because they’ve worked harder during practice, conditioning and film study.
But the left tackle couldn’t deny the benefits of their rare week-to-week continuity.
“Having the five guys stay healthy for the most part all year and start every game together is something that goes to show how close we are,” Matthews said, “and how tight-knit of a group we are.”