Unsung Heroes: 2015 Atlanta Falcons OL

Brandon Thorn, from The Football Educator, guest writes this week to discuss how the 2015 Atlanta Falcons OL are the unsung heroes so far this season for head coach Dan Quinn’s squad.

The purpose of this breakdown is to put a microscope on the offensive line, or as I affectionately refer to them as: the lifeblood of football teams. Simultaneously, my focus is on who, what, when, where, why, and how the specific unit wins both collectively and individually.

Protecting QB Matt Ryan from pressure, or alternatively with a strong running game, proved to be an arduous undertaking in 2014 for the Atlanta Falcons. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF) Atlanta ranked 24th in pass-blocking efficiency with the third-most pressures allowed. Their running game ranked 24th overall in yards per game (93.6) with a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry average.

2014 Week 1 Starting OL:

LT Jake Matthews
LG Justin Blalock
C Joe Hawley
RG Jon Asamoah
RT Lamar Holmes

Entering 2015, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff revamped the coaching staff to include their third OL coach in as many years; Chris Morgan, a Tom Cable protege with an impressive resume and familiarity with fellow first-year coach, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. In the newly installed zone-blocking scheme, Morgan has led a unit that through seven weeks ranks fifth overall in rushing yards per game (129.6) with as many touchdowns on the ground (11) as all of last season.

2015 Week 1 Starting OL:

LT Jake Matthews
LG Andy Levitre
C Mike Person
RG Chris Chester
RT Ryan Schraeder

Making the turnaround up front more impressive is that Atlanta has employed four new starters in 2015. Furthermore, the team traded for Levitre on September 4, 2015, nine days before their first game of the regular season, and he was inserted as the starting left guard, while the team cut center Joe Hawley and inserted Mike Person in the middle.

Morgan was the lone coach who Dan Quinn chose, and was allowed to choose, from the Seattle Seahawks coaching staff upon taking the job in Atlanta. Largely, the decision was based on Morgan’s aforementioned familiarity with Shanahan, but don’t think Quinn would have signed off on the move without knowing Morgan could coach.

Let’s take a look at the film of Morgan and Shanahan’s impact on the OL, and some stark differences in performance from 2014 to 2015.

Sidenote: Atlanta suffered significant injuries up front in 2014, finishing the year with new starters at C and RT, while Matthews battled an ankle injury all year. This exacerbated the schematic issues that I am about to point out.

Context: 2014 – Week 12 at home against the Cleveland Browns. Atlanta is down 23-14 in the fourth quarter. The offense runs a sweep to the right out of 11 personnel with the defense in a dime look, and seven men in the box:

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Devonta Freeman is having a fantastic season, but you would have never known this was coming given how the Falcons blocked for him in 2014. Atlanta, with this blocking scheme versus this particular front, asks for some especially difficult blocks to be made considering its personnel.

Watching this play closely you will see that each of the seven blockers on this play fail to execute their responsibility. First, the key block and perhaps most difficult was Asamoah’s reach responsibility on defensive lineman Billy Winn, lined up in 4i tech. The right guard is tasked with getting his hips and head around the defender to cut him off, or secondarily, to run him out of the play. At the snap Asamoah takes a false step, crosses his feet, and allows too much space in between him and his man. He doesn’t have the foot quickness to recover and save the play. Asamoah’s lack of initial quickness, use of leverage, and overall athleticism was a hinderance for Atlanta all season.

Next, pay attention to tight end Levine Toilolo, lined up outside of wide receiver Harry Douglas to the offense’s right. His job is to seal the alley against linebacker Craig Robertson. Blocking a smaller, quicker player in space at 6-foot-8 is a tall task, and his lack of leverage prevents him recovering from a bad initial angle, unable to effect Robertson’s route to the ball. All Toilolo needed to accomplish was to get in the LB’s way, not mow him down.

Finally, let’s focus on another missed assignment, resulting in a fourth defender making contact with running back Freeman before he reached the line of scrimmage. RT Ryan Schraeder pulls on this play, looking to execute a difficult block in space versus safety Donte Whitner.

Off the snap, he quickly pops out of his stance, gets his hips turned, and shows good play speed. But affecting his route to the second level is a crucial obstacle: WR Roddy White, who is in the process of being blown backward 10 yards by LB Paul Kruger. Schraeder has to adjust his track prematurely. Moving upfield changes his angle to cut off the safety to a disadvantageous one, because he has to attempt to get lateral again very quickly to catch the defender. Schraeder doesn’t do a great job of rerouting himself and getting flat, but either way this mistake is more on White being beaten by Kruger.  

This play (along with many others from that season) forces me to question the Falcons game plan, specifically, the ability to put their personnel in the best positions to succeed within the scheme. Cleveland ranked as the 32nd run defense in 2014, and Atlanta ran 23 times for just 63 yards and a 2.7 YPC average in this game.

Context: 2014 – Week 17 at home versus the Carolina Panthers, and a playoff berth on the line. Down 17-3 in the second quarter with 3:57 left, facing 2nd and 8, the offense comes out in 11 personnel, running a counter tackle look to the weak side versus the defense’s base 4-3 over scheme:

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Atlanta rushed 16 times for 63 yards at a 3.9 YPC clip in this game. At this point in the game the score is still respectable ‒ Carolina ended up winning, 34-3 and the Falcons are desperately trying to create some sort of offense.

The key block here, aside from the LT’s pull, is the RT’s “high-wall” block to ensure the 9-tech DE goes upfield. The last thing that the RT (Schraeder) wants is for the defender to cross his face directly into the RB’s track.

Schraeder’s stance leaves a lot to be desired. First, the tackle’s head is down, limiting his viewpoint of the defender’s exact position/stance. He’s in an awkward, hybrid 2-point/3-point stance, with his outside leg kicked back like it’s 3rd and 20 and the rest of his body saying 4th and 1.

For comparison sake look at Matthews’ stance; a much different, and more functional position for a running play. Not that I advocate for cookie-cutter stances across an offensive line, but I do advocate for functionality, and this isn’t it. Whatever your opinion on stances may be, Schraeder’s failure on this play limits what otherwise would have been a nice gain for Freeman.

Off the snap, Schraeder pops up quickly to counter the slanting DE. However, the head/eyes down issue negated any possible advantage, slowing his countering ability on the inside stunt. As soon as Schraeder gets vertical in his stance, his hips are turned completely toward the defender and his entire response is delayed.

The defender rips inside and blows up an otherwise nicely blocked run play. This looks like a very difficult block, but my contention is that it didn’t have to be. If Schraeder were in a functional stance to begin the play, he could have keyed on the defender’s movement sooner, at worst giving himself a chance to not overcommit.

There were impressive blocks on this play, but the breakdown of those would be a moot point. A simple coaching cue, or player adjustment could have turned a 2-yard gain into something much more significant.

Context: 2015 – Week 1 at home versus the Philadelphia Eagles. In the third quarter with 13:01 remaining, it is 2nd and 6 with the Falcons leading 20-10. Notice the defensive players’ eyes pre-snap, looking to the offensive left? This is because of Atlanta motioning its outside WR into a stacked position behind the slot WR:

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Atlanta runs an outside zone to the weak side of the formation against the Eagles’ nickel look. On the playside, Eagles lineman Fletcher Cox is lined up over Matthews, with Bennie Logan in 1 technique over the center, Person. Cox is 2-gapping between the B Gap and C Gap. These two defenders, along with linebacker Kiko Alonso behind them, are the players that need to be handled to ensure a positive gain.

Note: In the zone running scheme players are taught a few basics: if you’re covered, block the man in front of you, if uncovered, step to the playside and help the man next to you via a double team until one of you slides off to the second-level defender, typically a linebacker. The primary goal is to reach and seal playside defenders inside. If the reach is unattainable because of the defender cheating hard to the outside, then run them to the sideline, and out of the play.

I preface the breakdown of the executed play with zone principles to paint a picture of how perfectly this play is blocked playside. Considering that the left guard on the field has been a member of the team for nine days, and there are four new starters up front ‒ this is pretty impressive.

Initially, LT Matthews takes a necessary false step to allow his double team partner to get even with him, facilitating better leverage for the both of them. The Eagles’ defensive end 2-gapping actually works to Atlanta’s advantage because of his apprehension at the snap. If Cox had a single gap, this play may have turned out differently. Nonetheless, Matthews engages Cox with two hands rather than one, likely due to knowing the type of player Cox is, and that one hand may not cut it to have a clean release to the second-level. It winds up working out in Matthews’ favor; you can see him cross his feet and get a “bicycle base” (narrow base) prior to his release. His responsibility was complete, and the play a success, but it is a detail to keep tucked away for future reference.

With the next block, my personal favorite aspect of the zone blocking scheme will be highlighted. Levitre is uncovered at the snap, thus needing to carry out the assist on the double team, and eventually overtake the defender. He explodes with his inside leg at a diagonal angle with precision, aligning himself for position to overtake. Notice his left hand sets on Matthews’ ride side, serving as a signal for Matthews to release. Once Levitre feels that proper position has been reached, he gives Matthews a nudge. This synchronization up front is what makes the zone scheme so aesthetically pleasing, and teamwork-driven.

When this alert takes place Matthews peels off, and engages the scraping linebacker, Alonso. Matthews’ athleticism to overcome his narrow base is striking, as his body control remains outstanding through the second-level. Matthews’ block on Alonso showcases strong, inside hands at contact, attaching to the defender’s breastplate and controlling him with relative ease. The result is driving Alonso back nearly 10 yards while moving diagonally, quite an impressive display from the second-year pro.

For more context on how flawlessly the LT/LG double team was carried out, watch the RG/RT double team on a defensive lineman in the same position. The inferior teamwork, technique, and execution is a testament to what Matthews and Levitre have together on the left side.

Finally, let’s take a look at the difficult, and near perfect reach block from the center, Person, on nose tackle Logan. Prior to the snap Logan is aligned in an outside shade, which from a body positioning standpoint is opportune. Person has the responsibility of getting his hat and left hip outside of the defender to complete the reach block. Out of his stance, Person uses his left arm as a momentum generator, swinging it backward and forward, aiding in the opening of his hips. His initial quickness is outstanding here, quickly crossing the face of the defender, giving him a critical piece of the reach block.

Once his hat is across, it is a matter of maintaining this position, running laterally ahead of the defender, and getting his right hand inside for completion. You can see him attempt to undercut the defender with his right arm but failing to do so, a credit to Logan for locking out his left arm. Regardless of this mishap, the block was a success, moreover against an outstanding run defender (Logan is PFF’s ninth highest rated interior DL run defender in 2015*, ahead of Cameron Heyward and J.J. Watt).

*Premium PFF content.

Context: 2015 – Week 4 at home against the Houston Texans. Second quarter with 14:54 left, 16th play of a drive that started on Atlanta’s own 27-yard line. The offense is in 11 personnel from the shotgun with the defense in a dime look, and defensive back Eddie Pleasant aligned as a second LB alongside Brian Cushing. Freeman runs for a 23-yard touchdown to put Atlanta up 14-0:

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Houston has a strong defensive front four here with Watt and Jadeveon Clowney in wide 9 technique, with Jared Crick and Vince Wilfork in 3 technique and 2i technique, respectively. Surprisingly, Atlanta deviates from its base zone-blocking scheme for a traditional power run to the strong side of the formation.

Beginning with the backside first, the OT and OG on power have a hinge and pull responsibility. RT Schraeder is the backside tackle, so he has a hinge block designed to wall off the playside run and drive Watt upfield.

Going back to earlier when I broke down Schraeder’s 2014 stance on a similar style block, you can see significant improvement this year. He appears much more balanced, and aware of the defender. He simply pops out of his stance, turns his hips, and drives his inside hand into Watt’s inside shoulder to wall him off.

RG Chester is the backside guard, and has to pull to clear the hole being created in the playside C Gap. Notice how Chester enters the gap tightly off of Matthews’ backside, ensuring he clears inside first. He recognizes a DB as the first man, and does a nice job of gathering himself, coming to balance in space for the block. His aim point is the defender’s inside shoulder in order to clear him out for the RB to cut off his backside. The most impressive aspects of this block are Chester’s leverage at the point of attack, and balance to gather. These first two blocks are well executed.

The center, Person has a back block to mitigate Wilfork from invading the pulling guard’s space. He makes initial contact with superior leverage, but Wilfork stacks him and halts momentum with ease. Thankfully for Person movement at the point of attack wasn’t a requirement here, but you get a glimpse into why Person is a better fit in in a zone-based scheme rather than a power scheme: he wins with leverage, technique, and quickness.

The “deuce block”, aka double team, is the playside guard and tackle responsibility here. Levitre and Matthews again demonstrate the ability to work effectively as a pair. First, notice Levitre’s stance pre-snap. He displays impressive flexibility throughout his frame with excellent posture. His hips are loaded, with the natural curvature of his spine intact, both testaments to impressive hip/knee flexibility and body control. This enables him to typically be the low man on contact, a big advantage on the inside.

Off the snap of the ball Matthews fires out of his stance quicker than Levitre does, as they both take strong steps to their man. Crick wraps his inside hand around Levitre’s shoulder, attempting to yank him to the ground while splitting the double.

Matthews again shows impressive fluidity and body control throughout this play to adjust quickly to what transpires. As Crick is folded up, Matthews rests his body weight onto Crick’s back, allowing his feet to reposition further back, thus keeping his base intact. This slight adjustment makes the difference from losing leverage, or his feet being caught in the trash. Matthews then picks up the scraping LB (Cushing) with a strong punch on contact to knock him back, while squaring up nicely for the seal. I continue to be impressed by Matthews’ overall athleticism, particularly his body control and agility.

To round up the play, the tight end Toilolo does a commendable job on the defensive end, Clowney, keeping himself between the defender and the ball-carrier despite poor hand placement at the point of attack. Overall, this play showed an imposing effort by the offense to block six defenders with six blockers, not to mention an equally impressive job of Freeman to be decisive and elusive.

Context: 2015 – Week 6 on the road against the division-rival New Orleans Saints. 2nd and 6 in the fourth quarter, trailing 24-7, with 13:28 left. The offense is in 11 personnel against the defense’s nickel personnel. I want to highlight the execution of the outside zone run at a critical part of the game:

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*Backup James Stone has subbed in for the injured center, Person.

Late in the game, needing a big play, Atlanta leaned on its running game to deliver. The offense had a lot of success in this game rushing 21 times for 150 yards, a 7.1 YPC mark. On this play Atlanta has just six blockers to neutralize New Orleans’ seven defenders in the box.

To start things off watch the strongside, beginning with the LG/C combo block on DT John Jenkins to the LB Dannell Ellerbe. At 6-3 and 359 pounds, Jenkins is naturally a difficult player to move off the ball, but getting him moving laterally changes the dynamics. Off the snap you can see Jenkins is 2-gapping. Levitre takes an initial lateral step to the left, causing Jenkins to try and match his movement, leaning into him, rather than moving his feet to square up. This forces Jenkins to cross his feet, losing his base in the process.

Stone enters the picture from Jenkins’ inside shoulder as the lower man, continuing the process of keeping Jenkins lateral and off balance. Before releasing, Levitre generates separation with his inside hand before getting on his way to sealing off the scraping LB Ellerbe. Stone does an excellent job of running with the defender, staying square, and getting his head around to Jenkins’ outside shoulder, completing the block. Another benefit of the zone-blocking scheme; negating the bigger/stronger DL types by making them move laterally, usually resulting in a compromised base.

The key block that springs the runner belongs to Chester, who displays impressive movement ability and independent hand usage to feel his way through space, while maintaining excellent spatial awareness in the process. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams is aligned across from Chester pre-snap in 3 technique. Chester immediately comes out of his stance and delivers a strike to Williams’ inside shoulder, getting him perpendicular for the secondary blocker to overtake him on the combo block.

Next, Chester tracks the scraping linebacker Stephone Anthony, who is following his assigned A gap down the line of scrimmage. At this point Chester brilliantly begins narrowing his angle to the LB, showing good depth perception in the process, and meeting the defender where he is going to be, rather than where he is. Chester uses the aforementioned Jenkins as a marker to gauge his spatial awareness before engaging the LB in space. His initial hand placement on the LB isn’t good, and he wraps his arm around him, but it was subtle enough to not get called.

Overall, this is a well-balanced mix of blockers who do a good job of handling multiple roles in a diverse scheme. The Falcons do an outstanding job of mixing both power and zone blocking principles to fit their personnel up front. Freeman is ideally suited for the zone-blocking scheme that Atlanta primarily runs, using good burst and decisiveness through the hole. Moving forward, this offensive line in conjunction with Freeman is good enough to win games because of, not with, or in spite of.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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