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Why Falcons need offensive line to be 'tough, nasty and physical' down the stretch

Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, Drew Dalman, Matthew Bergeron and Jake Matthews didn't allow a sack and helped produce a season-high 228 rushing yards in a key Week 12 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Arthur Smith doesn't often heap praise on his players, even after exemplary performance. He refrains from using exaggeratory terms to describe an individual or position group.

That's what made his statement about the Falcons offensive line the day after a two-score victory over the New Orleans Saints so profound.

"That's as well as they've played since I've been here," said Smith, who has spent 45 games as Falcons head coach. "That's the expectation. It shouldn't be a secret. They're good players -- we've invested heavily -- and we have a lot of belief in those guys."

Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot consider the offensive line a foundational part of this franchise, a tone setter for the physicality that ideally defines Falcons football.

That's why a challenge was issued prior to that Week 12 meeting with the Saints. The Falcons had lost three straight winnable games coming out of a bye, with their goals achievable if they could stack wins down the stretch. That rivalry game was as important as any, so the offensive line had to be at its best.

Exact details of this challenge haven't been revealed – what happens in team meetings, stays in team meetings – but the general message was clear.

"We had to challenge them earlier in the week to go out and play their brand of ball," quarterback Desmond Ridder said, "which is tough, nasty and physical."

That's exactly what you see on tape from the 24-15 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Highlights are circulating of Chris Lindstrom mauling folks in the run game in space, of him and Kaleb McGary driving one opponent 15-ish yards downfield. Watch the whole game over and you'll see Drew Dalman, Lindstrom and Matthew Bergeron controlling the interior, plus Jake Matthews and McGary holding things down on the outside.

Even with all that solid play, Bijan Robinson had one specific moment that stood out.

"Did you see that one play where Kaleb drove his guy straight out of bounds?" the rookie running back said. "That kind of energy fires us all up. That was cool."

Again, tone setters. That was what Smith was looking for heading into that Saints game. It resulted in a season-high 228 rushing yards, zero sacks and just three dropbacks under pressure.

That's about as good as an offensive line can play. The easy narrative is that the line elevated its level of play against the Saints after being challenged. While Lindstrom said, "the message was sent," it's not quite so simple.

This effort was about the offensive line meeting its own lofty standard, using an internal motivation to spurn them on.

"I think there's a lot of pride in our unit and there's a lot of pride in each other," Lindstrom said. "I think just the mindset of playing for the guy next to you; I think that's really our approach."

The approach is about doing the boring stuff well, about stacking repetitions from OTAs on forward to create a level of cohesion that makes the line better than the sum of talented, conditioned individuals.

The linemen don't think about setting a tone. They look at it as meeting their own standards and then setting a new bar.

"I think it becomes like a subconscious thing," Dalman said. "It's something that we train from April, when you first get there and OTAs, and throughout the season. So, it's constantly engrained in us, from coaches, from other players, from ourselves. I say all that to say that we're gonna work as hard as we possibly can, be prepared, play as hard as we can and play as fast as we can.

"So, I think it that has the effect of setting the tone, but we think about it as, 'This is our standard,' and we're just executing up to our standards. It's not like, 'Oh, this week we're really going to amp it up,' or something like that. We have a standard and an expectation for ourselves, and we're constantly trying to reach that and then bump that up."

This offensive line believes it can dominate and it certainly did against the Saints. That helped the Falcons get one win. They'll need several more to secure the NFC South. Those victories won't come without similar production from a foundational unit, starting with a Week 13 clash with the New York Jets and then on throughout the rest of this season.

"That's the thing," Lindstrom said, "to be consistent about it."

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the New York Jets.

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