The San Francisco 49ers entered their Week 15 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons with 45 sacks on the season, third most in the NFL, and preparing to face an offense that had allowed 43 sacks, which was tied for the seventh-most this season.
Yet it was the Falcons' offensive line that got the better of the matchup, allowing just two sacks on the afternoon and, critically, keeping quarterback Matt Ryan clean for the team's game-winning drive. It was a result that few likely predicted before the Falcons' 29-22 road victory occurred, but the continuation of a recent trend for both teams.
The Falcons have allowed three or more sacks in six of their 14 games this season, and they gave up a total of 18 sacks from Weeks 11-13. Atlanta has been much improved in their last two games, however, allowing a combined three sacks. Likewise, San Francisco has failed to register at least three sacks in just four of their games, but three of those have come in the past three weeks.
This improvement by Atlanta's offensive line is notable because their past two opponents are currently ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in sacks, respectively. The turnaround in play also coincides with the return of first-round pick Chris Lindstrom, but it's been the improved play of fellow first-round pick Kaleb McGary that may be having the bigger impact.
"To see specifically Jake [Matthews] and Kaleb stand up, make some good blocks, [they were] willing to make sure they were going to protect Matt," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "The amount of sacks and hits over the last couple weeks has definitely gone down, and they're right at the front of that."
McGary played what was by far his best game of the season in Week 14 against the Panthers, earning a grade of 85.5 from Pro Football Focus. Against the 49ers, McGary earned a grade of 60.7 from PFF, which is a bit of a drop but understandable given the level of competition he was facing. The combination of Lindstrom and McGary has been an effective one, though, especially when we see plays like this:
That player that Lindstrom knocked into oblivion is rookie Nick Bosa, who has nine sacks this season and is one of the favorites to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
"Rookie on rookie, helping a brother out for sure," Quinn said of the play. "Certainly all three of them are rookies, but all of them are going to battle against one another for a long time. They're those kind of players."
Bosa had one of the 49ers' two sacks against the Falcons, although that play was the result of good coverage downfield rather than something that occurred at the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, Bosa is undoubtedly a great player who looks every bit deserving of the second-overall pick the 49ers used on him in April's draft.
Containing Bosa throughout the game was certainly a part of the team's success. By avoiding sacks and staying out of third-and-long situations, the Falcons were able to convert 53.8 percent of their third-down attempts, which is the highest mark of any 49ers opponent this season. Bosa, himself, was quick to point out his lessened impact after the game.
"I know I let all of them down," Bosa said. "Because I didn't win my rushes. I did the wrong things on a couple of plays, and I just needed to be more of an impact player."
Bosa is the biggest name on the 49ers' defensive line, but he's far from the only impressive player. Fellow defensive end Arik Armstead and defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and D.J. Jones have made this one of the most fearsome units in the league.
Center Alex Mack was vital in helping anchor the middle of the offensive line against players like Jones and Buckner, earning a 70.8 grade from PFF for his performance. As demonstrated on the play shown above, Mack's ability to handle one-on-one blocks was a big help to Lindstrom and left guard Wes Schweitzer, allowing them to work in a double team or slide off and block another rusher.
Yet for as impressive as Mack and the rest of the offensive line was, it was veteran left tackle Jake Matthews who may have been the true standout.
The 49ers moved their pass rushers around throughout the game, sending Bosa against both McGary and Matthews. On one of the most important plays of the game, a deep pass to Julio Jones that resulted in a pass interference penalty, the Falcons trusted Matthews to block Bosa by himself, and he performed sublimely.
"A lot of times we do leave Jake on an island, because he's our best one-on-one pass protection guy," Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "I thought he did an awesome job on that play of hanging in there."
Matthews was named to the Pro Bowl last season as an alternate, and he's once again playing at a high level during the second half of the season, especially in pass protection. PFF gave Matthews an 87.3 grade as a pass blocker against the 49ers, which is the second-highest pass protection grade for a left tackle against San Francisco this season behind only Baltimore's Ronnie Stanley.
Atlanta's ability to come back from a 19-10 deficit in the fourth quarter is a testament to the offensive line's play. Good defensive fronts live to pin their ears back and protect a lead late in games, and the 49ers have one of the best in the league.
The Falcons helped slow that pass rush with some well-timed screens and draws, but there were several critical plays where the offensive line had to hold up and make their blocks. In that regard, they came through when needed.
The offensive line has been criticized many times throughout the season, and deservedly so. They've allowed Ryan to be hit far too often and are part of a run game that hasn't been able to find consistent success in 2019.
These past two games feel different, however. There appears to be greater cohesion and elevated play by the Falcons' offensive linemen. After slowing down two of the best pass-rushing groups in the NFL in back-to-back weeks, Atlanta's offensive line is finally deserving of some praise.