FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On an offense that contains the NFL's reigning MVP, arguably the best wide receiver in the country and one of the league's top running back duos, center Alex Mack may just be the most important player.
His stability in the middle of the Falcons' offensive line allows for all of the players around him to flourish. It's no coincidence that his arrival before the 2016 season coincided with the transformation of an offense that ranked 21st in points scored the year prior to one that became one of the best in NFL history.
In 2015, Atlanta rotated between James Stone and Mike Person at center. Stone was Pro Football Focus' 33rd-highest graded center in 2014, while Person was the 27th-highest graded center in 2015. The Falcons knew they needed an upgrade at the position, and the signing of Mack has undoubtedly paid off.
Last season, Mack finished fourth among centers with a PFF grade of 88.7. Thus far in 2017, his grade of 93 is the best mark in the league and nearly four points higher than the next-best center. There has been no dip in the level of play at the center position for the Falcons this season, and Mack is one of the most well-rounded offensive linemen in the NFL.
"He's a pro's pro," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of his starting center. "He really puts forth the work and the effort to get it right, it's really important to him. I love that about him."
In today's After Further Review, we will break down Mack's impact on Atlanta's offense and why he is one of the best players at his position.
Two-level run blocker
It's impossible to overstate the skill that Mack brings as a run blocker. He is currently rated as the second-best run blocker by PFF, with a grade of 91.6, and he plays a vital role in helping open up holes at multiple levels on the field.
Arguably Mack's greatest strength is his ability to make blocks at the second level and in the open field. In a zone-run scheme, which Atlanta runs, he can help seal a cutback lane at the line of scrimmage or make a block down the field that further extends a cutback lane on the play.
"In the run game, it's his ability to sustain on blocks down the field," Quinn said. "He can get on a second level player, which is hard for a 310-pounder to do and match up with a linebacker or a safety, and stay on them … He, because of his athletic ability, he can stay on (a defender) and make the eight-second block."
He did just that in Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins on one of the biggest offensive plays of the game.
Mack's block in the first quarter on a toss sweep to Devonta Freeman helps spring the Falcons' running back free for a 44-yard gain. The reason this play is successful is because of Mack's ability to block two defenders at the second level and open up the cut-back lane for Freeman.
"The perfect example, if you go back to look at Devonta's long run, he stayed on his block and Freeman actually cut it back behind him," Quinn said. "But it wasn't a line of scrimmage block, it was down the field."
The Falcons line up in an unbalanced formation with two tight ends to the left side on this toss sweep play. Below, the blocking scheme is laid out.
Mack and left tackle Jake Matthews don't have a man lined up directly over them or to their immediate left – the direction the play is going – so they climb to the second level to block the linebackers.
A lane opens up for Freeman, which he races through for a positive gain. What really makes this play happen is Mack's block further down the field, which extends Freeman's rushing lane and gets him into the open field.
This play begins at the Falcons' own 39-yard line and without Mack's downfield block, Freeman may have been tackled at about the 49-yard line. A 10-yard run is a good play, but Mack's block makes it a great one.
"To toot my own horn, I think part of it is just natural athletic ability," Mack said of how he makes those blocks down the field. "You're going against a guy who's a bit more gifted than you with speed, so knowing where your advantages are, where the ball's going to go and how you fit into the scheme and where you want to make that block is important."
The skill that Mack brings in the run game is vastly different than what Atlanta had prior to his arrival. Not only is he an improvement down the field in open space, but he is great at holding the shape of the line and preventing penetration from disrupting the play before it develops.
There are countless examples of Mack walling off the defense at the point of attack, but one such example came last year in the Falcons' 41-13 victory against the San Francisco 49ers. On a trap run play down near the goal line Mack seals off one side of the defense, allowing Freeman to gain 9 yards and reach the 1-yard line.
This play looks designed to hit off the right tackle, but the 49ers diagnose it well and collapse that hole. Instead of taking a loss, Freeman sees the cutback lane that Mack and right guard Chris Chester create.
Mack's block out on the defensive end helps move the pile away from the eventual running lane, and results in a positive play.
Contrast Mack's ability to generate movement at the line of scrimmage with what the Falcons had prior. On a toss sweep to Tevin Coleman against the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, Person is unable to maintain the integrity of the line and ends up getting beaten by Linval Joseph, who makes the tackle.
Once the ball is snapped and the offensive line begins their reach blocks, Joseph creates penetration at the line of scrimmage. Minnesota's outside linebacker gets upfield to stop Coleman from reaching the edge, forcing him to cut back inside at a tighter angle.
Joseph comes off of his block to make the tackle, stopping Coleman for just a 2-yard gain. Although Person's block wasn't at the point of attack, he gets pushed backwards at the snap and doesn't maintain his block throughout the play.
The impact that Mack has had on the Falcons' offense since his arrival is apparent, but it doesn't stop with the run game. Mack's level of knowledge and the intensity with which he prepares has become apparent to his teammates.
"He's extremely dedicated," Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. "Whether it's in the film room, the practice field, the weight room, he's very tedious. He never backs down. He's the same dude every day, he's consistent and it's clear that he has a high standard for himself and the way he wants to perform. He's just the ultimate competitor."
Great in the passing game
According to Pro Football Focus, Mack had allowed just one pressure in pass protection through the first five weeks of the season, highlighting how steady he is in that aspect of the game.
He demonstrates the same focus and intensity in pass protection that he does when blocking in the run game, which helps make Atlanta's play-action passes so effective.
Watch on the play below how he sells out as if he's run blocking and then helps keep the integrity of the offensive line while shifting the pocket in pass protection.
The play is a max-protect, play-action pass that is intended to draw up the linebackers and take a deep shot behind them. The offensive line reach-blocks, as they would on a typical outside zone play, and then resets the pocket to Ryan's right.
Mack and the rest of the offensive line coming off the ball as aggressively as they do really helps sell the run fake and draw the linebackers up. From there, the linemen don't go to the second level of the defense, as that would draw and illegal lineman downfield penalty, and Mack uses his hands to keep the pocket intact as it shifts around the quarterback.
Many people don't think about the offensive line when it comes to play-action passes, but their ability to sell their run blocks goes a long way in making it happen. In this regard, Mack is one of the best.
He doesn't just excel on play-action and standard pass plays, however; Mack is also very fun to watch on screens.
To understand the type of effort Mack gives on receiver screens, watch this video of Taylor Gabriel recounting one of his favorite plays.
Although a screen play often happens so far away from the interior of the offensive line, Mack sells out to continue his blocks throughout the entirety of the play. Falcons coach Dan Quinn uses the term "Do right longer" when discussing the consistency and dedication he wants each player to show on every snap of the ball.
Few players on this team represent that phrase more than Mack does.
"I take a lot of pride in trying to finish every play," Mack said. "Playing from snap to whistle, really just trying to finish and keep the play going. You never know how long a play is going, where you're going to fit in and what that last block is going to be. I never want to your own effort as the cause of the play not working."
The effort he gives on these plays help create longer gains than might otherwise happen. Atlanta's game last year against Arizona is a great example of this.
The Falcons ran several screen passes to Gabriel in this game and on one particular screen, Mack makes a nice downfield block that knocks away a potential tackler and helps his receiver score a touchdown.
Once Ryan releases the football, Mack sheds his block and locates the safety in the open field as his next target. Gabriel makes a shifty move to dodge the safety's first attempt at a tackle, but Mack then arrives to knock him away just as he looks to be in position to lunge at Gabriel from behind.
The play began at the 35-yard line, and Mack finishes his downfield block at the 15-yard line. It's that level of dedication that Quinn preaches, and it's part of what makes Mack so invaluable to the Falcons' offense. "He is like a gnat," Falcons linebacker Deion Jones said of Mack. "Like a fly that you just can't get out of your house. He's always around. His finishing aspect is crazy; if he could go to the third level, he would. He's just so relentless. He's smart, he knows exactly what he's doing. He's like a technician, and I admire that about him."