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Patriots Expose Atlanta: What's Falcons' One Major Need?

The New England Patriots recorded 12 quarterback hits Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons

It's hard not to be feel extremely negative about the Atlanta Falcons season because of the last two blowout defeats. Atlanta was not really competitive in Weeks 10 or 11, a portion of the season capped by Thursday's 25-0 loss to the Patriots.

But looking at the big picture, a 4-6 record in Arthur Smith's first 10 games is not too bad. The Falcons already matched the team's win total from last year, and they still have very winnable games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions.

"We'll get out of this hole,'' Smith promises. But how?

Taking another step back to look at the even bigger picture -- the potential 2022 depth chart and beyond -- there are needs all over the roster, including at the position group the Falcons have invested a lot of draft capital in in recent years: the offensive line.

After years of neglecting the o-line in the draft, the Falcons have selected four blockers in the first three rounds over the last three years. 

Put another way, Atlanta has selected eight players on Days 1 and 2 since 2019. Half of them have been offensive linemen.

Former general manager Thomas Dimitroff tried so hard to fix the offensive line quickly that in 2019, the Falcons took two offensive linemen in the first round. Dimitroff traded Atlanta's 2019 second and third-round picks to acquire another first-round selection to choose Kaleb McGary. Before him, the Falcons drafted Chris Lindstrom at No. 14.

In 2020, Atlanta picked center Matt Hennessy in the third round. This past spring, new general manager Terry Fontenot added guard Jalen Mayfield to the mix in the third round.

Lindstrom, McGary, Hennessy and Mayfield make up four of the five starters up front for the Falcons. The unit hasn't worked out as the Atlanta front office hoped. 

That came to a point Thursday night when the Patriots recorded four sacks, 12 quarterback hits and six tackles for loss. It seemed like the New England front-seven spent a majority of the game in the Atlanta backfield.

Despite the draft capital spent on offensive linemen, the unit was a major question mark heading into the 2021 season. To see them struggle isn't surprising or new. Head coach Arthur Smith also declined to place all the blame the offensive line for Thursday's shutout loss.

“We have to look at the matchups maybe schematically at what we’re doing," Smith said. "It’s not all on the offensive line. We’ve got to get things fixed all over the offense.” 

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But the offensive line seems to be getting worse. The Falcons have allowed multiple sacks in every game the last four weeks. Also during that stretch, the opposition is averaging 8.5 quarterback hits against Matt Ryan.

To put that number in perspective, the Miami Dolphins lead the NFL in quarterback hits, and they average 7.6 per game.

It doesn't help that the Falcons are often in passing situations because of long third downs or behind on the scoreboard like the last two weeks. And part of why Atlanta hasn't been in manageable third-down situations the last few games is the struggles in the running game.

“It sets up so many things. It slows down the pass rush, it helps you set up some of the play action passes that you’re doing. But it also wears out a defense when you run the ball effectively," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "That certainly is something that we’d like to do better.”

The Falcons are fourth-to-last in the NFL with 78.6 rushing yards per game and second-to-last with a 3.4 yards per carry average.

All of it adds up to 25-0 this week ... and 43-3 last week in Dallas.

Mike Davis isn't the problem. Among 48 eligible running backs, Davis is 45th in rushing yards before contact per carry. He's one of 10 backs in the league that, on average, is getting hit before he reaches two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. 

One of the other 10 running backs below 2.0 yards before contact per carry is the Falcons' other top feature back. Cordarrelle Patterson is having a better season than Davis because he's doing a better job at adding yardage after contact.

The Falcons are the only team in the NFL that has two eligible running backs below 2.0 yards before contact per carry. That speaks to how poorly the run blocking has been for the Falcons.

Atlanta has seven picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, including four on the first two days. With needs at pass rusher, safety, wide receiver, running back, and quarterback, it would be a huge blessing if somehow the Falcons' offensive line can come together enough down the stretch this season to justify not using another top pick on the unit.

But that doesn't appear likely. The Falcons offensive line remains so dire, Fontenot may need to spend another high draft choice to fix the group up front.