The Falcons' offensive front had one encouraging stat that wasn't as obvious as the zero sacks they allowed on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Coming into Sunday's game, they had allowed 13 sacks of quarterback Matt Ryan, one of the league's worst rates. Then it all changed against Seattle's defense. An offensive line that had been challenged all week by Atlanta's coaching staff answered the call for better protection. Head coach Mike Smith said Monday the players played better and the coaches did a better coaching job last week putting the linemen in better positions.
"I think that we performed better up on the offensive line, up front, and with our tight ends and our running backs," Smith said. "I think our receivers did a good job with breaking some routes off when the blitz was presented but I also think we did some things as a coaching staff to help our guys, schematically, how we were going to block and what protections we were using."
Sure, the Falcons gave up no sacks, keeping Ryan relatively clean for the entire day. The four quarterback hits they recorded were tied for the least with their performance against the Bucs (a game in which they did allow four sacks, as well). The four hits is down significantly from Week 1's 11 quarterback hits.
Even more telling about what the Falcons offensive line was able to do is the number of plays they completed of 20 yards or better. They hit on five such plays, a number that ties them with Week 1's output. The difference between last Sunday and Week 1 is the Falcons weren't playing from behind, passing to make up a significant deficit.
The protection also allowed Ryan to see the field more clearly and make better decisions, including to move out of the pocket on his own and pick up yards with his legs. The quarterback was the Falcons' second leading rusher, gaining 26 yards on four scrambles.
"I thought we did some things schematically that we kept the pocket clean for the most part," Smith said. "Giving up no sacks is the way we're used to doing things around here and there wasn't a big push up the middle, which, in turn, allowed Matt, when he had to, to make some plays with his feet because the pocket was not crushed in front of him. He was able to make some plays with his feet. Quarterbacks in this league, when they have a lane, they're going to be able to do that."
The way things have been in Atlanta, as Smith said, has been to keep Ryan's Falcons jersey pretty clean through the course of ball games. They took a big step back in that direction with Sunday's performance. Right tackle Tyson Clabo said he and his linemates have better expectations than what they put out in the first three weeks of the season. They're proud of the zero sacks allowed number.
"It's been difficult," Clabo said. "We haven't really played up to our standard and we all know that. We have high expectations for ourselves. To come in here with the noise the way it was and to do that, it was an accomplishment."
The challenge, however, won't get any easier now. They allowed zero sacks to a Seattle defense that is ranked next-to-last in the league with five total sacks. Their next opponent, the Green Bay Packers, is tied for fourth in the league with 11 sacks. While much of the talk about Atlanta's opponent next week has centered around the offense, the Packers defense is no slouch and the offensive line will have to be as good or better to keep Ryan clean again.
After a challenging week of close scrutiny, they'll likely be ready to come out again and make a statement to remind everyone that Atlanta's tough line play is back.