Against the Carolina Panthers, the Falcons' offensive line had what was, to this point, their best game of the season.
Atlanta allowed just one sack, which came on a play where quarterback Matt Ryan stumbled after his foot was stepped on, and the Falcons gained a season-high 159 yards on the ground while averaging 5 yards per carry. Sunday's game also marked the return of rookie Chris Lindstrom, who had been out since injuring his foot in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings.
For the first time since that season opener against the Vikings, the Falcons had the right side of the offensive line that they drafted this offseason. Lindstrom played a solid game in his return, and rookie right tackle Kaleb McGary had the best outing of his career thus far.
"What I was happy to see, a couple of things – just their aggressiveness, their size in the run game, the urgency that they played with," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "That led into having some play pass and having some of the third downs be not the distances where you're behind or having to throw."
Pro Football Focus gave Lindstrom a grade of 72.2 against the Panthers, which was the third-highest grade among Falcons offensive linemen. Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Matthews had his third-best game of the season, earning a grade of 81.1 and a nearly-elite grade of 85.6 in pass protection against the Panthers' top pass rusher, Mario Addison.
But it was McGary who led the way for Atlanta on the offensive line, earning an 85.5 grade. McGary was solid in pass protection, and also a force in the run game. The Falcons gained 56 yards on runs off the right tackle or around the right end against the Panthers, highlighting the impact McGary had in helping the run game get going.
"The Falcons bookend our tackle position after blowing out the Panthers this past weekend," PFF writes. "It was by far the most encouraging performance of the season for the rookie right tackle, as he earned both his highest pass-blocking grade (80.2) and run-blocking grade (85.9) of his career."
The Falcons invested a lot of draft capital in their offensive line this offseason, using two first-round picks on Lindstrom and McGary. For the first time since Week 1, fans got to see what that investment was worth. For at least one week, it proved to be a smart investment.
Atlanta rotated Lindstrom at right guard with Matt Gono, who was one of the standout performers of the preseason and had a solid game of his own. With the 2019 season winding down, the Falcons are taking a comprehensive look at their options on the offensive line, and those options are performing well.
On the run below, watch how smoothly and efficiently Gono pulls from his guard spot and gets the seal-out block on Marquis Haynes, allowing Devonta Freeman to hit the open field.
In their first meeting against the Panthers, the Falcons gained just 54 yards on the ground and gave up three sacks. That changed greatly in their second game, and it started with improved play from McGary at right tackle and a more consistent performance at right guard.
During the Falcons' first matchup against the Panthers in Week 11, right guard Jamon Brown earned a 48.3 grade from Pro Football Focus and a 45.8 grade as a run blocker. One of Lindstrom's biggest strengths in college was his quickness and ability to mirror defensive linemen. He displayed those qualities in his return to the Falcons' lineup, such as on this draw play where he allowed the defender upfield and then cut off his path back to Freeman.
Atlanta's improved play up front is certainly not entirely due to Lindstrom's presence or even the improved play of McGary, but their performance shouldn't be overlooked.
With three games remaining and a number of questions popping up, the Falcons need to start finding some answers, especially in the trenches. The Falcons believe McGary and Lindstrom can be part of the solution moving forward, and, at least for one week, that proved to be the case.