Protection is at the root of Falcons’ inconsistent offense

SEATTLE, Wash. -- In 2010, the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons were the NFL's bastion of consistency. They were a balanced team, run and pass, and while they lacked a downfield threat that could open it up against enemy defenses, they were able to win most physical battles with running back Michael Turner and fullback Ovie Mughelli. When it was time to go to the air, quarterback Matt Ryan had his choice of Roddy White, the NFL's most targeted receiver in 2010, and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. It wasn't a stodgy offense, and it allowed the Falcons to set the tempo more often than not.

Then, the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers demolished them, 48-21, in the divisional playoffs, and a change in organizational philosophy was evident after the fact. In the 2011 NFL draft, the Falcons traded multiple draft picks for the right to move up and grab Alabama playmaking receiver Julio Jones. Later in the draft, they picked up Oregon State waterbug back Jacquizz Rogers to further turbo-charge the offense. Speed receiver Harry Douglas was coming back fully healthy after a torn ACL in 2009 and a disappointing 2010, and it seemed that the Falcons were ready to take their offense to a new level.

Through three games, it has most decidedly not been that way. The Falcons are 1-2. The balance between run and pass is gone, largely because the team is playing catch-up most of the time. Ryan is averaging 40.7 pass attempts per game (an all-time high) and as a result, the team's already iffy pass protection has been exposed. After taking just 23 sacks in 2010, Ryan's already been taken down 13 times in 2011. The offense that torched the Eagles for 35 points in Week 2 looked nothing like the offense that struggled to get anything going against the Chicago Bears in Week 1, or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3. Both of those games were road losses, which put another nail in the reputation Atlanta's offense used to have.

Now, head coach Mike Smith has made noise about switching chess pieces on the offensive line, the supposedly explosive offense has to take receivers off the field and play max protect far more often than anyone would like, and frustration is mounting. And with a cross-country trip to Seattle to face a Seahawks defensive line that is one of the few consistently excellent things about that rebuilding team, there's no time to waste.

"We've done it earlier in the season at other positions on the team, and we'll do it at the offensive line as well," Smith said on Monday. "We'll let that play out during the week and try to put the best guys out there. That's our job as a coaching staff, to make sure we have the best guys out there to give us what we feel is the best opportunity to win."

So, there could be more transition to a line that has already featured two different centers and lost guard Harvey Dahl to the St. Louis Rams in free agency.

On Wednesday, Ryan tried to quiet the doubt — and the doubters — when he addressed the Seattle media during a conference call. "We're gonna to work to find our best guys at every position, and we're going to do that every week," Ryan said of the line. "Our guys are working hard, preparing and doing the best we can. Whoever's out there on Sunday, I'm sure they'll do a great job for us."

Left tackle Sam Baker has been especially under the gun, allowing multiple sacks and pressures after holding up fairly well through his first three seasons in the league. Neither Ryan, who was selected by the Falcons in the same 2008 draft class as Baker, nor Smith, who was one of the people who pulled the trigger on that move, was ready to throw Baker under the bus.

"Just to keep doing what we've been doing the last couple of years — preparing the way that we prepare, having confidence in our ability and staying positive," Ryan said, when asked how he talks with his struggling teammate. "In this league, there are going to be weeks like that and it's tough when they're back-to-back-to-back, but you have to hang in there and be mentally tough, and he is. He's a great competitor. He's working his tail off and in the meeting room, so I've got confidence in him and really the rest of our guys up front."

"We haven't played as effectively as we'd like to through the first three weeks, and as I told the media here, the first thing you have to look at is scheme, in terms of shoring up something you're not doing well," Smith added. "The second thing is personnel, and that's how we've approached it this week. We're not executing — we did have a different center in the first two ballgames, and those are the two biggest things.

"Oftentimes, there's more to it than a simple answer of, 'When you're not protecting the passer, it's the offensive line's fault. Until you know the protection schemes and how things unwind, everyone is responsible in terms of protecting the quarterback. It can be the wide receiver not breaking off routes, it can be the backs, and it can be the quarterback. So, when we say that we're not protecting the quarterback, we're not singling out our offensive line."

But it was a problem against the Buccaneers - -the Falcons would try and run three- and four-wide sets, the Bucs responded with simple six-and seven-man blitzes, and Atlanta was unable to match up. Thus, the move to more two-tight end sets late in the game, along with other adjustments — more and more, quick drops and short passes became the order of the day.

"I thought we did a nice job during the end of the game scoring 10 points during the fourth quarter," Smith said. "Unfortunately, we had some opportunities that we weren't able to capitalize on, especially there in the red zone in the second half of the ball game."

Asked if the lockout was part of the problem — abbreviated preparation time leading to a loss of the little things — Smith became more abrupt than is usual for him.

"I'm not going to go there. We're not going to make excuses.  Right now, we're not playing what we like to call 'Falcon football.'  We're not playing to the level that we need to. We're not playing to the consistency that we need to, as well. But it's very early in the season and we are continuing to work through a lot of different scenarios in terms of how we're trying to put this team together."