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Sarah Woodall: Atlanta Falcons' latest slump traces back to unreliable offensive line
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons offensive guard Ben Garland (63) walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Atlanta. The Baltimore Ravens won 26-16. - photo by AP photo
Matt Ryan
New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) tries to sack Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) - photo by AP photo

The Atlanta Falcons’ 2018 season continues to spiral out of control.

Since rattling off three-straight wins to get back to .500, Atlanta has dropped four-straight. As the seats began to empty during an underwhelming loss to Baltimore this past Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, any modicum of hope to make the playoffs ended. 

So who’s the culprit behind the Falcons being caught in a tailspin? It can no longer be pinned to injuries; that narrative has been exhausted by now. 

Is leadership in question with Dan Quinn? I don’t think so. You can let Quinn off the hook, given his proven track record leading a franchise to the Super Bowl and what he’s done with a decimated (here I go again playing the injury card) defense.

What about the play calling? 

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who after leading the Falcons on an upward trend — due in large to Matt Ryan’s MVP-caliber numbers — during a 4-4 start has now stalled. The Falcons have failed to put up 20 points in the last four weeks.

But Sarkisian’s not fully to blame either.

Quinn wouldn’t be the first head coach to identify the line of scrimmage as the key to success in most matchups. And a lack of physicality along the line of scrimmage, I feel, has been to blame for the Falcons’ latest blunders. Atlanta lost both starting guards (Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco) for the year, sure. But that’s no longer an excuse for the poor display of blocking from others to step in their place. 

There has been inconsistent play in multiple areas, but Ryan is getting hit and pressured constantly. He’s been sacked 36 times in 12 games — one less than his entire 2016 total. 

The run game has sputtered as of late with 71, 80, 26 and 34 yards over the last four games. For an offense that builds its momentum off the playaction and passes over 66 percent of the time, that is not good. Without a decent run game, you can’t manipulate defenses as easily. You can’t create those openings in the middle of the field. 

And with little pass protection, plays can’t fully develop downfield. And even with all the weapons the Falcons have at their disposal, all of that falls by the wayside if your quarterback can’t stay upright.

Against Baltimore, the line was blown up constantly (as pointed out by Falcons color commentator Dave Archer). The offense was stifled to its lowest yardage total in nearly two decades with 131 yards. It was also obvious that no one could pick up their assignments in pass protection as Ryan was dragged down three times from inside the pocket, including a strip sack in the second half. The Ravens recorded five stops for a loss in that game, the most imposing coming when Atlanta attempted to run the ball on a fourth-and-1 at midfield and Ito Smith was gang-tackled for a 1-yard loss.

Even rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson — whose escapability and athleticism carried him through college — was too comfortable inside the pocket and the Ravens held the ball 19 minutes longer than the Falcons on Sunday.

But back to the offensive line. Alex Mack at center has been solid and previously was a huge part of Atlanta’s Super Bowl run in 2016, but at 33, he isn’t getting any younger. Right tackle has been a disaster, as Ryan Schraeder’s play continues to plummet and it was revealed via Twitter that Ty Sambrailo saw reps at right tackle with the first team on Wednesday. 

Ben Garland, Wes Schweitzer and Zane Beadles have been splitting reps at guard too, but let’s face it, that combo hasn’t been promising either. 

It was made clear within the last two weeks that Quinn has been reshuffling the deck, hitting refresh in certain areas — the offensive line especially — and giving younger guys some opportunities. But line-of-scrimmage play doesn’t look like it’s gonna get any better for the rest of the season.

If the Falcons want a shot at another Super Bowl run as early as next season, the offensive line has to be the focal point in the draft and/or in free agency. For now, the most this offensive line can do is take as much — if not more — responsibility for this latest slump.

 

Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at swoodall@gainesvilletimes.com or @Woodall8sarah on Twitter.

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