Falcons' heavy investment in the offensive line hasn't paid off

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Chris Morgan didn't try to sugarcoat anything while assessing his unit through seven games.

Asked Thursday whose performance has been most pleasing to him thus far, Morgan spoke volumes by keeping his response brief.

"I think Alex [Mack] is doing a good job battling through, getting the guys right," Morgan said of his perennial Pro Bowl center. "He's consistent. He's solid. And ... definitely some up-and-down performances in some other spots. We just have to continue to get better as a group."

The line wasn't good, collectively, in last week's loss to the Los Angeles Rams, contributing to five sacks and nine quarterback hits allowed. One of those sacks, surrendered by backup left guard Wes Schweitzer to Rams star Aaron Donald, led to franchise quarterback Matt Ryan suffering a sprained right ankle. Ryan, sidelined the past two days of practice, could miss his first game since 2009 when the Falcons host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

"It's alarming," Mack said of Ryan's injury. "It's something as an offensive line you don't want to see. We've got to do a better job of keeping Matt clean."

Upgrading the offensive line was the offseason emphasis after seeing Ryan take an exorbitant amount of hits last season. Not only did the Falcons draft two offensive linemen in the first round in right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary, they also signed two big offensive guards in Jamon Brown and James Carpenter. Brown signed a three-year, $18.75 million deal ($12.75 million guaranteed), while Carpenter signed a four-year, $21 million deal ($9.25 million guaranteed). The offensive line, with a combined cap number of $36,742,347, accounts for 21.9% of the team's total cap this season. Mack and left tackle Jake Matthews lead the way with cap numbers of $11.05 million and $7.597 million, respectively.

It might be hard for the Falcons to get back the full return on their investment, at least for this season. Ryan has been sacked 19 times and felt contact from the defense 35 times through seven games. Ryan was sacked 20 times and contacted 42 times through the first seven games of last season.

"Obviously, we've got to protect better, as a whole," Brown said. "I think there's times that we do well, but we just have to be more consistent. When we're blocking well for a game, that happens the whole game. If we can string together some weeks of being consistent week in and week out, obviously we can avoid things like Matt getting hurt. And then we'll have more success on offense.''

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter didn't want to call out anyone on the line specifically after last week and chalked it up to just a bad showing overall for the offense. Koetter did say he thought Brown was the second-best lineman on the field to Mack. And Koetter also gave an assessment of what the rookie McGary could do better against speed rushers off the edge.

"It's pretty common for young guys that as they go through their first NFL season that they're going to have some highs and lows," Koetter said. "That was not Kaleb's best, but he wasn't the only one in that boat. I think that he has to be a little bit more aggressive in his sets and get his hands on guys quicker. When he does that, he's been real successful."

Matthews, a one-time Pro Bowler now in his sixth season, hasn't played his best football, either.

"Jake has been solid in a lot of games, he really has," Morgan said. "He's like everybody else, though -- he's got to continue to get better. He's got to continue to be consistent. He's got things he needs to work on, and he knows that.

"We just have to play better; play better as a group, play better as a team."

To be fair, the line hasn't been 100 percent healthy. Mack has shown his extreme toughness while playing through an unspecified left elbow injury since Week 4 without missing any action. Lindstrom remains on injured reserve with a broken right foot after playing just one game, although he is eligible to return if the Falcons decide to go that route. McGary's growth was stunted by a preseason heart procedure, then he injured his left knee and now wears a brace. Carpenter's been dealing with knee issues lately and was not on the practice field to begin Thursday. Brown missed one game with a concussion. And even backups Schweitzer (shoulder) and Matt Gono (back) have dealt with injuries.

Morgan refused to use those injuries as a crutch for the unit's performance not being up to standard.

"It's nothing different than anybody else has to deal with in the league," Morgan said. "There's going to be injuries. Guys have to step up: next man up. We rotate a lot of guys in the spring for that reason. You just have to find a way."

It won't get easier for the offensive line as it looks to protect the quarterback -- Ryan or Matt Schaub -- and open holes for what has been a stagnant running game. Seattle has some capable pass-rushers, including former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. NFC South opponents Carolina and New Orleans rank second and 10th, respectively, in sacks per pass attempt, and the Falcons have yet to play a division game. Not to mention Tampa Bay's Shaquil Barrett is tied for the league lead with nine sacks.

"Protection is a team game," Koetter said. "It's on everybody."