Falcons have to better protect Ryan

Over his first four seasons in the league, the Falcons have gone to great lengths to put weapons around quarterback Matt Ryan.

Now, they have to round out the circle by getting him some top flight protection and some road graders to guarantee that the run game continues to flourish.

The Falcons found out early that they would have problems throwing the ball deep off of five- and seven-step drops.

After Ryan took a pounding from Chicago in the season opener, they had to abandon their plan for a deep-passing fireworks show. In the game against the Bears, Ryan was sacked five times and hit 11 times.

The Falcons eventually had to stay with their short passing attack and had to use backs and extra tight ends to help protect Ryan. They mostly ran out of 11 personnel formations with three wide receivers. They rarely went with four receivers or with empty backfield sets.

“That’s going to be important for us to really analyze what’s in free agency and really dig into where we are with the draft,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It just allows us to be a little bit more creative; whether if we want to make moves and how we are going to approach things.”

Dimitroff’s main offseason focus is to improve the offensive line. All of the positions along the offensive line will be open for competition.

“We’ve talked very openly about looking at every aspect of our football operations,” Dimitroff said.

The left tackle and right guard positions were problematic for them. Sam Baker battled through elbow and back injuries. He had back surgery and never reclaimed his starting position from Will Svitek.

The Falcons had trouble replacing Harvey Dahl at right guard. Garrett Reynolds struggled mightily and after a porous game against Detroit and Ndamukong Suh, he was replaced in the starting lineup by Joe Hawley.

Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau was fired after the season. He quickly landed in St. Louis.

The Falcons don’t have a first- or fourth-round pick and will likely have to address the line in free agency.

The Falcons will certainly look at New Orleans guard Carl Nicks if he reaches the open market.

Also, San Diego left tackle Marcus McNeill will get his tires kicked. He is likely to be released over injury concerns by the San Diego Chargers. When healthy, McNeill has been one of the best left tackles in the league. He’s been selected to two Pro Bowls.

The Falcons have medically passed players with neck concerns in the past. Kevin Mathis, Coy Wire and Kelvin Hayden have all been cleared by the Falcons after suffering neck injuries.

Last season, six teams flunked Hayden before the Falcons cleared him and he signed a one-year deal. He ended the season on injured reserve with a dislocated/turf toe.

McNeill, who turned 28 in November, is massive at 6-7 and 336 pounds. His neck and back injuries have led to him playing in just 20 of 32 games over the past two seasons.

Over the first four seasons in the league, McNeill started 62 out of a possible 64 games. He was selected in the second round (50th overall) of the 2006 NFL draft. He’s stated that he plans to continue playing.

The Falcons’ athletic performance staff will have to make sure McNeill is healthy and then try to get a functional movement screen on him. There might be a simple weight or muscle imbalance that can be corrected to alleviate his neck and spine issues.

NOTES, QUOTES

-The Falcons have been in touch with former Miami linebacker Channing Crowder, who plans to make a comeback after sitting out last season.

Crowder, the former Florida standout who prematurely retired at age 28, is ready to make a comeback. The Atlanta Falcons, who hired Crowder’s last defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan, have been in touch and will most certainly check out Crowder.

“I’d love to play in Atlanta,” Crowder said. “Coach Nolan is my guy. Actually, when he got the job in Atlanta he (sent) me a text. Coach Nolan is a first-class guy. I’m not just saying that to be politically correct. He’s a first-class guy and a great defensive coordinator. He’s a great guy. When I got released he texted me back then and said that, ‘It was great to coach you.'”

-Former Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry and current kicker Matt Bryant spoke to the Health and Human Services committee of the Georgia legislature in support of the “Georgia Return to Play Act of 2012” on Wednesday at the State Capitol.

“I remember coming off the field in a daze,” said Curry, who played for the Falcons from 1980-87. “I was trying to find out which sideline was my own. My only thought was to get back on the field.”

Bryant, a father of seven kids ages 14 to 5 months, wants what is best for the youth.

“The most important thing in all of this, anything that you can do to improve the safety for the kids, to me, you find a way,” Bryant said.

Also, offensive lineman Andrew Jackson and wide receiver Kevin Cone were on hand, but did not address the committee. The bill, which was sent back to the committee for revisions, related to providing information to young athletes and their parents or guardians about concussion recognition and management.

The bill is similar to laws that have been passed in 31 states and the District of Columbia after the death of a high school player who returned to play after suffering a concussion.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NCAA executive director Mark Emmert both submitted a letter in support of the bill.

The NFL, which is being sued in several concussion-related cases, was represented at the hearing by Kenneth Edmonds, the league’s director of government relations and public policy.

“The NFL, as well as the Atlanta Falcons, strongly supports Georgia’s Return to Play Act of 2012,” Edmonds said. “We feel that it will help to prevent brain injuries and help make recreational activities safer for young athletes throughout the state.”

-Offensive tackle Andrew Jackson spent five years with Pat Hill, the Falcons’ new offensive line coach, when in college at Fresno State.

Jackson was redshirted and played for four seasons. He was selected by the Falcons in the seventh round (210th overall) of the 2011 NFL draft.

“Pat Hill is a great coach,” Jackson said. “He’s a very passionate coach. He can bring a lot to our offensive line. I look forward to it and I hope we are very receptive of him and that we take our offensive line play to the next level.”

Other offensive linemen have asked Jackson what they should expect from their new position coach, who was fired after going 4-9 last season at Fresno State.

“I’ve talked to a couple of the other guys about him, the No. 1 thing is his passion,” Jackson said. “He coaches with passion. He’s an aggressive coach, but his intentions are to help you build and improve as a player. He’s very clear with his style. I think that he will bring a new skill set to us, which will benefit us in the long run.”

QUOTE TO NOTE

“I told him if he needs a better linebacker let me know.” — Former Miami linebacker Channing Crowder when talking about Falcons new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who coached him during his stay with the Dolphins.