The Atlanta Falcons offensive line has been a noticeable problem for several years.
Last season, the unit allowed the most quarterback hits in the NFL, and often provided since-traded signal Matt Ryan with dirty pockets.
Entering the new campaign, Atlanta rolled out two new starters on its line: left guard Elijah Wilkinson and center Drew Dalman, replacing Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessy, respectively. The duo joins left tackle Jake Matthews, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary to make up a new look group up front.
By all accounts, the early returns have been promising, as the unit didn't allow a sack in the season-opener and paved the way for over 200 yards on the ground. However, the following week wasn't as strong, as Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked three times and the team mustered just 3.3 yards per carry on 27 attempts with a long of 11.
Still, Falcons coach Arthur Smith views the takeaways from the first two games as positives.
"I think our O-Line's playing really well," Smith said. "They did a nice job with the plan on (Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron) Donald. They've been protecting well; pockets have been clean for the most part. We've run the ball relatively well through the first two games."
A key part to the Falcons' success on the ground has been the play on the right side of the offensive line. When Atlanta's needed yards, its opted to run to the right, behind Lindstrom and McGary.
The two arrived in Atlanta together as members of the 2019 draft class, both as first-round selections. This off-season, the Falcons' new regime, which had no part in drafting either lineman, picked up Lindstrom's fifth-year option but declined McGary's.
While the team has received standout play from Lindstrom since the beginning, McGary has largely been inconsistent throughout his tenure as Atlanta's strong-side tackle, but through the season's first two games, Smith said that he's "been pretty solid."
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Matthews and Lindstrom were expected to be steady pillars up front, but McGary's play has certainly been a pleasant surprise. At center, Dalman has had some issues with snaps, but he's stood up fairly well for a player making his first two starts.
That leaves Wilkinson, who arrived in training camp as a man on a mission and quickly overtook Mayfield for first-team reps at left guard. He's yet to look back, despite having never played left guard prior to OTAs.
Wilkinson's second-ever start at the position came against Donald, who Smith described as one of the most dominant interior players in the game. Just like he did throughout the offseason programs, Wilkinson rose to the challenge.
"I think Elijah's handled that transition really well," Smith said. "I thought (the Rams) was his best game. It was a heck of a challenge, they moved Donald (to) a lot of spots, and our guys handled it and they adapted. It wasn't perfect, but I think there's been a lot of progress over there."
After so many years of struggling to keep their quarterback upright and create consistent lanes for running backs, the Falcons' offensive line, with its two new faces, is certainly trending up with the "progress" Smith mentioned.
The unit will receive its next chance to keep growing on Sunday, when Atlanta travels to Lumen Field for a 4:25 p.m. contest with the Seattle Seahawks.
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