Falcons Offensive Line Taking Shape


Coming into the 2014 season, Falcons fans, media, and team administration knew the offensive line would be a key position group that needed to improve in order for the them to be successful. Over the past few weeks this position group has seemingly found its stride and the results are showing.

Over the last four weeks, the Falcons are 3-1 since coming off their bye week. In those games, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been sacked a total of seven times. Another theme in those three wins has been the fact the offense hasn’t rushed for less than 86 yards. That performance was against the Carolina Panthers.

Another thing to keep in mind for this position group, is the fact they’ve had to overcome significant injuries. They lost veteran tackle Sam Baker in the preseason to a knee injury. They also lost veteran reserve tackle Mike Johnson to a foot injury. Same goes for tackle Lamar Holmes, center Joe Hawley (knee), and center Peter Konz (knee).

That was five linemen that were either starting or slated to compete for starting time on the line.

Now that gives you second year offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder, undrafted free agent rookie center James Stone, and first round pick rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews to pick up the slack to protect Matt Ryan.

On Monday, head coach Mike Smith said that he believes the offensive line is playing some pretty good football.

“I think they’re really starting to come together in regards to understanding what the other guy is going to be doing,” Smith said. “That unit has to play together as a unit and there is some cohesion there over the last couple of weeks. It was good to get the running game going.”

Speaking of the three young guys that were just mentioned, Smith mentioned them when talking about the job their position coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman have done to bring the group together.

“I think coach Tice has done a very good job,” Smith said. “He and coach Wade Harman work with our offensive line. This is a group that’s starting a college free agent (James Stone) at the center position, a second year player (Ryan Schraeder) at the offensive tackle, and a rookie draft pick (Jake Matthews). It says a lot about those guys getting them ready and prepared to play.”

Speaking of Jake Matthews, he was looked at to be the cornerstone of this offensive line’s revival over the offseason. Matt Ryan has liked what he’s seen out of his left tackle, calling him an “old soul.” Ryan is of course referring to the belief that Matthews acts older than his age. He believes that his maturity is definitely being seen on the field.

“Probably the biggest thing for him is that he’s starting to understand week to week how you have to prepare, what the competition is going to be like, and what he needs to do to get himself ready to play,” Ryan said. “That’s different for everybody. You don’t figure that out week one of your rookie year, it takes some time. I think Jake’s starting to get a feel for what it takes. I couldn’t be happier with his compete and the way that he’s playing.”

Mike Smith mentioned earlier in the week that Matthews had been playing some really good football over the last few weeks and on Thursday he expanded on his previous thoughts.

“His technique, in terms of his sets are much better,” Smith said. “I think he’s having a better understanding of how to study the guys that he’s going to be blocking. He understands what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are.”

Another name mentioned is the third player to start at center this season for the Falcons, James Stone. Unlike Matthews, his path to the NFL wasn’t as glamorous. He had to earn it tooth and nail in training camp. He’s been praised for his football IQ and the way he’s approached the position. If you ask him about his success though, he credits other people.

“What’s been huge for me is the guys around me,” Stone said. “Especially the two veterans playing the guard positions, Jon (Asamoah) and JB (Justin Blalock), they’ve been helping me each game and each week. They’re always giving me a lot of support and helping me out with calls and things like that.”

Another reason that could be credited with Stone’s quick ascension to early success in the NFL, is the fact that he was part of a Tennessee offensive line that many thought as one of the best in college football last season. All five players from that position group are currently on NFL rosters, including North Gwinett High School product Ja’Waun James.

Stone agrees that his time in Volunteer country is helping him at the next level.

“We all had to play early and we had to learn fast,” Stone said. “So just getting used to being thrown out there and just work though situations.”

Like Ryan, other teammates have noticed this offensive line is coming together at the right time. The rushing numbers were touched on a little earlier in this piece and running back Steven Jackson is thankful for the guys up front.

“I would say that consistently they’re getting better,” Jackson said. “We’ve had to face some challenges personnel wise. But, I think now as a unit they’re playing good together and they understand each other. That’s all you can ask for, that they continue to grow.”

Now the offensive line will have the chore this week of keeping players like linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers out of their backfield. If they can put up the same numbers they’ve had in three out of these last four weeks it could be a good night on the ‘Frozen Tundra.”

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