Falcons' pass protection woes re-emerge on eight-sack day for Matt Ryan

NEW ORLEANS -- It’s patently obvious what the Atlanta Falcons will need to focus on most when they host the New Orleans Saints again in Week 13:

Pass protection.

Matt Ryan has now been sacked a whopping 17 times in his last two meetings against the Saints, including eight in Sunday’s 24-9 loss.

Falcons coach Raheem Morris was quick to point out that Sunday’s performance wasn’t just an indictment on the offensive line -- that many of the sacks were a result of New Orleans locking up Atlanta’s receivers down the field and forcing Ryan to hold on to the ball too long.

“I know the sack numbers will probably get out of whack because of how well they played in their coverage. It was really not a lack of protection or a lack of discipline, busted assignments,” Morris said. “It was a combination of those guys covering us really well, not being able to hold up for as long as some of those pass plays may have taken.”

And Ryan said the entire offense needed to play better on early downs, since four of the sacks came in third-and-long situations.

Nevertheless, eight sacks is disturbing enough that the Falcons need to make sure this was just a blip on the radar. Unfortunately now that they have fallen to 3-7, the focus will only increase on long-term evaluations of team needs. And they’ll need to decide where the offensive line fits into that.

Atlanta has invested a lot in this offensive line in recent years -- including drafting both right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary in the first round in 2019. And the pass protection had shown improvement this year, allowing just 19 sacks in the first nine games.

But now Ryan is suddenly on pace to be sacked 43 times this year after he was sacked a career-high 48 times in 2019.

“We didn’t play well enough. It’s completely evident,” said Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews, another former first-round pick. “We’ve got to regroup, watch the film. We felt like we had a solid plan going in, and obviously we didn’t execute. The numbers speak for themselves. So it makes you angry. You don’t want to see your quarterback hit. We’ve got to do a lot better job.”

Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson did power through Matthews for one of the sacks, and Hendrickson’s pressure against Matthews helped flush Ryan out of the pocket on another sack. And Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata powered his way through guard James Carpenter and center Alex Mack a couple of times.

But a replay review of all eight sacks showed that at least four of them could be described as “coverage sacks,” with Ryan forced to stay in the pocket too long -- including two of Saints DE Cameron Jordan’s three sacks while he was matched up against McGary.

“As offensive linemen, the bottom line is you find a way to get the job done no matter what. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are,” Matthews said when asked about Morris’ defense of the offensive line. “They did a good job. They brought a bunch of different packages and stuff … and we just had to firm it up more. We were a little bit all over the place. We have to watch the film and correct it. It didn’t feel good.

“It’s frustrating – and we’ve got no choice but to learn from it. They’re a good team, but we’re a really good team too. We expect a lot more from ourselves.”