FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — For Falcons fans who watched Saturday’s preseason loss to the Tennessee Titans, it seemed as if, indeed, the sky was falling.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked five times in a little more than two quarters. To compare, Ryan was sacked more than that only once in a regular season game last season.
That’s how quarterbacks get hurt.
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“We gave up way too many sacks,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said on Monday, after reviewing game film four or five times.
Then, Smith launched into a defense of an unnamed offensive lineman. Presumably, that lineman is second-year right tackle Lamar Holmes, who has never started a regular season game in the NFL and who — to the untrained eye — appeared to struggle in a major way, giving up two sacks on his own.
Smith continued: “And often times people want to try to pinpoint it on one person. That’s not the case. Unless you know what the protection is, what the front is and who’s responsible for who on twists and such, you can’t blame one person. It’s a unit, and the unit didn’t play very well; and we’ve got to get better.”
Yet in the end, he conceded, “We can’t have our quarterback hit that many times, we also have to make sure they’re not just physical things we have to correct but there’s mental things as well. They’re all correctable. We gave up way too many hits.”
To put the dismal performance in proper perspective, some context is necessary. While the Falcons only game-plan for the third preseason game during training camp, there are a number of caveats to that.
First, more than anything, they go through the process of game-planning, without conceiving an elaborate game plan with the detail of a regular-season contest.
Secondly, that game plan is devoid of plays the Falcons want to conceal for the regular season. If a potential opponent sees a play on tape, the theory goes, it will be prepared for it when the regular season arrives. So, teams try to hide as much as possible — without getting their starting quarterback injured.
On Saturday, the Titans pulled more out of their defensive playbook than the Falcons were expecting for a preseason game. Left guard Justin Blalock was asked if the Titans used a more sophisticated game plan than normal.
“Typically speaking, yes,” Blalock said. “Schematically, they had some things that were obviously problematic — with hindsight, things that could’ve been adjusted to. But that doesn’t matter. We needed to communicate better on the sideline as well as in the game to handle those things. It’s been reviewed, ad nauseum.”
In particular were those “twists” — or stunts — that Smith mentioned, when defensive linemen circle around each other instead of rushing directly at the offensive lineman opposite them. The Falcons worked on these corrections this week.
“I think it was just some twists that were kind of new to us,” right guard Garrett Reynolds said.
Also, Smith said the Falcons spend more time making corrections in camp than during the regular season.
“We have to have more meeting time simply because you’ve got guys that aren’t as familiar with your system,” he said. “Usually, there are more corrections in preseason than there are in the regular season. It’s just a function of having that many guys and not having as many guys that are as familiar with your system. We go through that same process. It’s long and tedious.
“We grade every snap of every practice. We give a written synopsis to every practice so they’ll not only read through it verbally but they can read through the corrections while the film is being played.”
Even with that context, some troubling issues persist. One is the Falcons provided help at times to the tackles, in the form of chip blocks from tight ends and fullbacks. Holmes said “there was a little of both.”
“Film shows sometimes they help and sometimes it’s just us,” he said of the five linemen.
Line issues aside, the Falcons don’t appear to be pushing the panic button. If management and the coaching staff thought the issues were urgent, by now they could have brought in a free agent. Instead, they seemingly think they can coach up their group — and Holmes in particular.
“We had five sacks, which is never good,” Holmes said. “It happened. We’re getting better as a unit. Me, personally, graded out I did pretty well. I just have a couple of technical issues I have to work on to get better myself.”
Blalock, now the line’s elder statesman, said the Falcons still have time to improve.
“Obviously, it’s not what we want to put out there,” he said. “But that being said, there’s more time for preparations. You have another crack at it to show what we worked on all week long and hopefully we brushed up on a couple of things.”
The big test might not come against Jacksonville on Thursday (preseason finale).
As such, the Week 1 road clash with the Saints could present a sort of pass/fail result for the O-line’s readiness.