To The Whistle

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To play on the Falcons offensive line is like a badge of honor.

The group travels and hangs out in packs, rarely venturing off solo. It's a tight-knit group up front and one that takes its job and the relationship between its members very seriously.

The start of the season was tumultuous, to say the least, for the offensive line. Trying to shake off the rust from the lockout while also filling a huge void created by the departure of Harvey Dahl in free agency led to some inconsistent play up front.

Now, months later, things have settled down to the point where how the line started pales in comparison to the second half of the season — and with that has come a great deal of confidence and pride.

It has been tested since and will certainly continue to be tested Sunday as the Falcons take on one of the best defensive lines in the league when Atlanta kicks off with the New York Giants during the Wild Card round at 1 p.m. in MetLife Stadium.

To say the Giants defensive line is great would be an understatement. Stalwarts like Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora along with newcomer and now-Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul have created nothing but problems for opposing offensive lines, and the Falcons are very aware of their abilities.

"They rush the passer well," right tackle Tyson Clabo said. "They have incredible first steps off the snap and they use their hands incredibly well. You watch every game they've played this year, there hasn't been an offensive line that really has had an easy time with them. It's going to be a challenge and it's a matter of overcoming the crowd noise and getting off on the ball."

Easier said than done sometimes, but if there's a group of guys that believes it can handle the challenge the Giants present up front, it's the Falcons offensive line.

Earlier this week, criticism came out of New York — from Tuck — about how the Falcons offensive line approaches the game. While Tuck's comments were certainly a hot topic around the locker room Wednesday for the Falcons' first open media session of the week, the offensive linemen didn't feel much of a need to apologize for how they play the game.

"I don't pay attention to it too much," left tackle Will Svitek said. "It is what it is. We have a style we play here and we're always going to play to the whistle. We pride ourselves on being physical. If he views playing to the whistle as dirty or cheap or whatever, so be it.

"We basically play to the whistle. We don't play beyond the whistle because, obviously, if you play after the whistle, it's going to be a 15-yard penalty and it's going to be a fine. But we take pride in playing to the whistle. We want them to know we're there. We're going to be pests. We're going to be physical. We're going to play fair, but we're going to play hard. We're going to be there. We want them to know that we're there, and that's kind of our style. It's our M.O., so we take a lot of pride in the way we play here."

And that extends to anyone charged with protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and keeping him from hitting the ground.

Fullback Mike Cox pointed to the importance of film study this week to pick up on any potential weaknesses the Giants defensive line may have and become familiar with their alignments in different situations.

But also important is going to be getting the running game going, which will help take the pressure off the offensive line and Ryan. Devonta Freeman's effectiveness running the ball may help dictate just how dangerous the Giants' defensive line is allowed to be.

"They're dangerous when they can pin their ears back and just go, knowing that we have to throw it," Cox said. "Running will definitely keep them honest and make them have to keep their responsibilities. It makes it a lot tougher for them."

A dramatic improvement in how the line protects against the pass, however, hasn't got unnoticed, and the numbers back it up.

Six of Ryan's 12 interceptions this season came in the first five weeks of the year, when the offensive line allowed 14 sacks — a stretch with two wins and three losses.

Since then, the offensive line has just 12 sacks to opposing pass rushers, an average of just more than one sack per game in 11 weeks.

And whatever's been working is what the Falcons are going to stick to.

"We play to the whistle and we're going to continue to do that," Clabo said. "That's the way we play. That's why we've had the success that we've had here and we're not gonna stop."

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