When the Falcons signed Mike Person in March, Dan Quinn and his staff noticed an interesting detail as they combed through the 27-year-old's tape. Person, a lifetime guard, briefly played center during the 2014 preseason and, according to Quinn, looked good in that role. So the coaches made a note.
Seven months later, Person's not only Atlanta's starting center—he's improving steadily into a reliable option. Without a doubt, Sunday's matchup versus Houston, Atlanta's most dominant victory in the first quarter of 2015, was his best game to date.
Person, along with guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester, did a tremendous job opening up holes for their backs against the Texans. While outside rushes are a huge part of Atlanta's offense, the Falcons have become highly effective on inside rushes, as well, thanks to sound interior blocking and aggressive play from Devonta Freeman and Terron Ward. Let's take a look at two examples that illustrate this success.
Here's how Freeman's first touchdown of the afternoon began. Although Person faces the monstrous Vince Wilfork at the snap, he quickly shifts right and looks towards the second level. Levitre then moves to Wilfork; the other O-linemen block their men; and Patrick DiMarco, now one of the NFL's best fullbacks, sprints toward Jadeveon Clowney. Right now, every defensive lineman is accounted for.
Here's how the play develops from another angle. Jake Matthews shoves Whitney Mercilus out of harm's way, DiMarco neutralizes Clowney, Levitre stays on Wilfork. But two Houston linebackers, Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney, are untouched and locked in on Freeman.
Cushing and/or McKinney would have probably made a stop near the line of scrimmage had Person not recognized Cushing's lateral movement towards the right hash. This awareness allowed Person to bolt in that direction and lay down a block. Meanwhile, Levitre and Matthews are still on Wilfork and Mercilus, respectively.
With Cushing unable to make a tackle, all Freeman had to do is elude McKinney. He did just that and finds the end zone.
"I was pleased with Mike (Person)," said Quinn. "He had some good blocks not just against Vince, but we're such a good combination team so the center and guard combination, to the linebacker is more of what we do, than you take him by yourself. We work long and hard on all of the center/guard combinations, the guard/tackle combinations, the tight end/tackle combinations."
The second clip is Ward's touchdown, his first as a pro. Immediately off the snap, Person and Levitre double-team Wilfork, and Chester and Schraeder double-team Jared Crick. Matthews takes on Clowney; Levine Toilolo swings all the way to the other side to block Watt—a difficult task, to say the least.
Here it doesn't look like Ward has a lot of space to maneuver with Cushing and another linebacker (Justin Tuggle) once again in position to make a stop. However…
...Ward stays the path, and Chester and Levitre overcome those two LBs. A few Houston DBs get a hold of Ward around the four yard line, but the undrafted rookie channels his inner Michael Turner and carries them past the goal line for six points.
"I thought Andy (Levitre), in specific, has been just been really solid, in terms of the run game and protections," said Quinn. "He's exactly what we had hoped for when we had a chance to acquire him. We've been together now four weeks of going through the process, and he's been a great addition for us.
"I think everybody relies on Chris (Chester) because he's so smart. He's really able to help in a number of different spots in the offensive line. He helps Mike Person out, and he can help out Ryan Schraeder. I think it's that experience that comes along where it's just on the details all of the time. He's one of those players where you ask him a question, and he has a reason for it."
Along with the three interior linemen, a lot of credit for these two plays goes to DiMarco, Toilolo, Schraeder and Matthews. DiMarco and Toilolo had particularly challenging assignments—both of which required a lot of running—and nullified a pair of extremely talented edge rushers.
I feel like I'm saying it every week, but this comes down to Kyle Shanahan. Chester is a fit in Atlanta because he was a fit with Shanahan in Washington. Levitre is built for Atlanta's blocking scheme. And Person, a newcomer who barely moved the needle during free agency, has gone from a backup guard to a bona fide starting center. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for that transition, but it wouldn't have been possible without innovative thinking and stellar coaching.