Winning the line of scrimmage key for Falcons versus Bucs

Atlanta Falcons pass-rush specialist Osi Umenyiora hasn't been on the field as much of late, but if the team is going to win on Sunday against Tampa Bay, his snap count may have to rise.

Robert Deutsch/Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

This may, or may not, be good news for the Atlanta Falcons. The key to victory Sunday in Tampa just may very well lie in winning in the trenches.

Go ahead and let out that frustrated sigh now.

Atlanta’s offensive line hasn’t looked good this season. Only eight teams have allowed more than the 98 total pressures (sacks, hits and hurries combined, according to Pro Football Focus) on quarterback Matt Ryan. And at 95.6 yards per game on the ground, only seven teams have had more trouble running the football.

On the defensive side, the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL with just seven sacks. Jonathan Babineaux is Atlanta’s best pass-rushing defensive tackle, and he ranks 46th in the league at disrupting the passer. Only one defensive end (that’s played at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps) in the league has a better pass-rush productivity than Jonathan Massaquoi, but his playing time dipped in Week 8.

When it comes to stopping the run, Atlanta’s defensive line has had trouble. The Falcons have kept just two teams under 100 yards rushing in 2014, and the Vikings actually pasted 241 ground yards on this defense.

It’s been ugly in the trenches.

There are some signs of promise, though. At least for this week against the Bucs.

It’s been six long weeks since the Falcons won a football game. Their last victory came against the Bucs in Week 3, and it was a glorious 56-14 shellacking where little went wrong for Atlanta.

The troubles have come since that Thursday night game. But now with the Falcons facing the team they overpowered like Mike Tyson pummeled opponents in the 80s, it’s as good of time as any for Atlanta to get back to good.

The Falcons were very good on both lines of scrimmage in Week 3.

Ryan was sacked just once when the Falcons faced the Buccaneers, and his offensive line did an incredible job of keeping pressure out of his face. Ryan was under pressure just three times that night. To put into perspective just how great a job that was, the lowest pressure total in any other game for the Falcons was nine (Week 2 versus the Bengals, and Week 6 against the Bears). The average number of times Ryan has been pressured in the seven other games outside of Tampa Bay: 10.7.

If Atlanta can return to some semblance of that Week 3 line that did just about everything right, the offense might have a chance at rebooting.

To be fair — and give kudos — to the offensive line in regard to the running game, the Falcons rushed for 144 yards against Tampa Bay, the highest rushing total this season.

Gone is right tackle Lamar Holmes and center Joe Hawley from that Week 3 line. But Holmes was actually the week link against Tampa Bay, and James Stone has now had a start and a bye week as the team’s No. 1 center to get acclimated.

Atlanta’s defensive line played well against Tampa Bay earlier this season. The Falcons held the Bucs to just 64 yards rushing (one of two times this season they held a team to fewer than 100), and they really got after the quarterback.

Three of the Falcons’ seven sacks (42.8 percent) this season all came against Tampa Bay. They pulled Mike Glennon down twice, and Josh McCown once. They also totaled 13 pressures on Bucs’ passers.

In their two wins this season, the Falcons notched 18 pressures (their best game to date from a pass-rush perspective) against New Orleans and 13 versus Tampa Bay. That average of 15.5 pressures per game far outweighs the 7.7 Atlanta has put up in its six losses.

Getting pressure on an opposing quarterback is a huge determining factor for wins. And there’s a chance for Atlanta to get after McCown again in Week 10.

The only difference to Tampa Bay’s offensive line from Week 3 to now is an injured Anthony Collins at left tackle. Oniel Cousins filled in for Collins — who isn’t expected to play on Sunday — last week, but wasn’t an overpowering force. His play wasn’t poor, just not inspired.

Massaquoi notched one of his two sacks in the Tampa Bay game. He also added two hurries. Osi Umenyiora had one of his best games this season with three hurries and a quarterback hit. It was also one of the Umenyiora’s top two games in terms of snap count.

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When it comes to attacking the opposing quarterback, Massaquoi is the best of the Falcons bunch. Both his sacks have come from rushing over the right tackle, but he’s been almost equally proficient at getting pressure (just not sacks) from the other side as well.

He just needs to have a higher snap count to produce big-time numbers.

Massaquoi went from 30 snaps in Week 5 to 44 the next week and 52 the week after. But when the team traveled to London, his snaps didn’t make it through Customs (he dropped back to 37 snaps).

Expect Massaquoi to see a big increase on Sunday, and Umenyiora will likely see one of his busiest games too.

The best way to win the line of scrimmage is to have your best players on the field.