Falcons O-Line Ready For The Friday Test


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga—The Falcons offensive line gets the chance on Friday night to show if they have indeed improved over the last couple of seasons. The Tennessee Titans come to town to test a group that surrendered 31 sacks and blocked for a running game that rushed for less than 94 yards per game in 2014.

Now there’s a new offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan and he brings the ‘zone-blocking’ scheme to the Falcons. This is a scheme that allows for linemen to move on their feet to make blocks and also to use the cut block when needed.

The latter point was brought up on Tuesday morning’s edition of ‘The Front Row’ on 680 The Fan, by former Falcons wide receiver Brian Finneran. He says that is a huge part of what this blocking scheme is. We won’t know truly what this group can do until they get into game action.

He’s right about that! This same scheme was used in Denver during the former Bulldog running back Terrell Davis years by head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The Texans also adopted the same blocking scheme when Kubiak became their head coach.

The bad news with the zone blocking scheme is that it can take time to implement. In Houston, it wasn’t really until running back Arian Foster hit his stride (no pun intended) that the running game was able to get going.

The good news is that once Foster got the running game going, the offensive line was also given the kudos for his success. Soon enough, the Texans became known for having one of the best starting offensive line group’s in the league.

The Falcons current first team center Joe Hawley is taking advantage of the reps in this new scheme and knows that Friday will indeed be that chance for them to fully use the techniques.

“I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like, because during practice it gets frustrating sometimes and kind of difficult because the D-Line are holding” Hawley said. “Cutting is a big part of this scheme. I’m excited to get to playing games and put it on the field to see what this offense can actually do. Plus see what kind of run game we can develop.”

What’s another key for this offense to be successful in 2015 and beyond? Hawley says they need to stay out of the training room.

“When you start losing starters it starts getting tougher and tougher,” Hawley said. “I think we have a very deep group now, we have a lot of guys with all the injuries last year with game experience. That’s a good thing having seven, eight, nine guys that can play and have starting experience. So I think we’ll be good to go.”

One of those guys that is getting a chance at a lot of first-team offensive reps is second year lineman James Stone. He became the Falcons starting center after Hawley and Peter Konz both ended their season prematurely with torn ACL’s in ‘14.

He is definitely one of those guys that Hawley is talking about when he mentions that group of players that got more playing time with injuries. Third year offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder is another player who got playing time in 2014 with injuries. He is currently the first team right tackle.

Back to Stone, he is getting those first team reps at left guard at the moment. It’s a position that he’s still learning to play.

“I played it a couple of times,” Stone said. “This is my first time being able to get some work at it extensively. I’m enjoying it and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play left guard.”

You saw Hawley mention the running game earlier in this piece and right now Antone Smith is the only healthy running back with meaningful experience in the NFL. Second year running back DeVonta Freeman is out right now with a hamstring issue and rookie Tevin Coleman is also sidelined. Along with Smith, that leaves Jerome Smith and undrafted rookie free agent Terron Ward fighting for playing time.

The injuries are hurting the development for those players, but Smith is up to the challenge of taking on the increased reps in practice.

“I’m up for any challenge,” Smith said. “It’s all about the process. The process thus far has been really good for me coming into my seventh year if you’re not counting practice squad. I’m feeling good with the process of taking those extra snaps and run with them to do what I do best. That’s run the ball.”

It’s no secret that the Falcons have been talked about as a team that cannot run the football effectively over the past couple of seasons. But do guys like Smith take it personally?

“It’s always personal,” Smith said. “But at the same time it’s a job, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to help this team win. It’s not I, it’s this team. Whatever it takes to help this team win, we’re all for it in the running back room.”

Depending on how practice goes on Wednesday, it is likely that the Falcons will not have Freeman or Coleman available.

On the offensive line it looks like the group of Jake Matthews- left tackle, James Stone-left guard, Joe Hawley-center, Chris Chester (newly signed in offseason)- right guard and Ryan Schraeder-right tackle will start on Friday.

Chester played for Shanahan in Washington and knows the scheme well. Many offensive linemen say the veteran has been a huge help for them.

We’ll see just how much they play and maybe it will only be for a short amount of time on Friday night.

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