The six-time Pro Bowl center enjoyed continuity during the 2016 Super Bowl run when the Falcons started the same five offensive linemen — left tackle Jake Matthews, left guard Andy Levitre, right guard Chris Chester, right tackle Ryan Schraeder, and himself — every game. But over the last 17 games, Mack has lined up next to six different starting guard combinations, including veteran left guard James Carpenter and rookie right guard Chris Lindstrom in a season-opening, 28-12 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
It will be yet another different starting guard combo Sunday night when the Falcons take on the Philadelphia Eagles after Lindstrom was placed on injured reserve with a broken foot. The Falcons will be without their prize first-rounder until at least Week 10, meaning veteran Jamon Brown, a surprise inactive against Minnesota, likely steps in to the right of Mack. Wes Schweitzer is the other option, but Schweitzer struggled as starter last season.
“We have to have the next guy step up,” Mack said. “Lately, we’ve had a lot of rotation in at guard. We have a long season ahead of us. But we’ve done a constant rotation at the guard position, so the next person is going to be ready.”
Like Mack said, the Falcons have at least 15 games ahead, but it will be a long season if the offensive line doesn’t jell and play at a high level consistently. The opener exposed some deficiencies in a unit the Falcons had hoped would be a strength based on offseason upgrades. The first-game struggles were understandable considering rookie first-round right tackle Kaleb McGary didn’t play the full game a little more than a month after a heart procedure and Lindstrom didn’t finish the game after the broken foot. Lindstrom looked the part in the 40-plus snaps he played.
Actually, it was Pro Bowler Matthews who was as shaky as anyone in the opener, allowing a sack by blitzing Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr on the game’s first play, setting the tone for the Falcons’ miserable day. Matthews didn’t adjust well to the Vikings’ speed rush off the edges, an aspect the Eagles are sure to try an exploit.
“I have really high standards for him,” coach Dan Quinn said of Matthews. “I have really high standards for Matt [Ryan], so to have two interceptions, I was disappointed with that. [Devonta] Freeman is one of our guys who makes the most plays. To have a turnover in the red zone, was bummed for that. And Jake, as well.
“What I can say is that’s not going to be the norm for any of those three players. Yes, it certainly wasn’t [Matthews’] best game. But it killed him, too. That’s what I love about Jake. He was so pissed about it because he is such a competitor.”
The final stat line showed four sacks and seven quarterback hits by the Vikings on Ryan. Not to mention the running game didn’t get going as much as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wanted after the Falcons fell behind 21-0 early, resulting in a pass-heavy attempt to come back. Koetter didn’t point the finger solely at the offensive line for all the pressure on Ryan. There were missed blocking assignments by tight ends and running backs, too, and general miscommunication in a rather loud stadium.
“We can do better across the board,” Koetter said. “The line always seems to get the brunt of the criticism. Sometimes, it’s justified. Sometimes, it isn’t. You know, you can make excuses for a lot of stuff, but it’s more than just getting beat physically. Once in a while, that did happen. Against a good front like Minnesota on the road with that crowd noise, it’s going to happen from time to time. We also missed a couple of help opportunities when we had guys assigned to help outside on the edge.
“I thought Alex Mack did a great job of changing up the silent counts. He drew like three procedural penalties. But also one time, we snapped the ball early when everybody else wasn’t ready for it, and that put us under pressure one time. There’s different parts to it.”
Moving forward, it’s about making the necessary adjustments against an equally, if not tougher, defensive challenge this week. The Falcons don’t need any advanced statistics to know how dominating the Eagles’ defensive front can be, led by menacing defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. In Ryan’s last three games against the Eagles (including playoffs), he is 0-3 with a passer rating of 73.1 and completion percentage of 54.5 percent while being sacked nine times. Ryan was blitzed 33 times on 123 dropbacks in those games.
“I’ve been playing Fletcher Cox for years and he is a really good player,” Carpenter said. “The Eagles’ defense is good. We just have to play our game and get back on track. We saw some mistakes that can be corrected and have to get back on it this week.”
The wild card for Sunday and perhaps for the remainder of the season could be Brown, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract ($12.75 million guaranteed) in the offseason and lost the left guard battle to Carpenter. Then he found himself inactive for the opener.
“Yeah, I was surprised,” Brown said. “I figured I’d be dressing. But at the end of the day, the coaches are up top and they’ve got to make decisions. That’s what they went with and that’s what we roll with.”
Now, Brown has to find a comfort zone moving from left guard over to right with Lindstrom having foot surgery.
“I expect to get my chance to step in and prove why they brought me here,” Brown said. “I was drafted to the Rams at right guard and ended up starting my rookie season at left guard. And throughout my second, third and fourth years, I played a combination of both right and left guard. So, I’m pretty comfortable on either side.”
The Falcons’ offensive line as a whole has to find a comfort zone too, particularly with defensive fronts such as the Eagles, Jaguars, Rams, Texans, Saints and Panthers remaining on the schedule.