Offensive line looks better so far

Can the biggest weakness last season actually become a strength this year?

When Jake Matthews was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons with the sixth pick in the first round three months ago, they hoped they were getting their next franchise offensive tackle.

They needed their next Mike Kenn, or the next Bob Whitfield – two offensive tackles that anchored the line of scrimmage for more than a decade in a Falcons uniform.

Well, they’ve got that and maybe more. The early returns on Matthews are so positive you’d think Pollyanna was a football analyst. Everyone around Flowery Branch can’t say enough good things about the young man, and when you see Matthews you know exactly what they’re talking about.

Monday during practice I watched Matthews closely. The Falcons scrimmaged against the Titans, so it was a chance to see Matthews go up against someone in a different uniform. He was challenged by former Georgia Tech star Derrick Morgan and his backup, six-foot-eight beast Ropati Pitoitua (glad this is newspaper and not radio so I don’t have to pronounce that!).

Matthews held his own against the rush. In fact, he manhandled both Titans and made Pitoitua look more like he was five-foot-eight. Neither defender got any penetration at all against Matthews, something that had to make quarterback Matt Ryan smile.

After practice, I asked Ryan if Matthews looks like a normal rookie lineman, since he certainly doesn’t to those of us watching on the sideline. “Yeah, he certainly doesn’t look like it to me,” Ryan said. “He is as savvy as any rookie I’ve been around – any position. He plays very physical and he’s extremely athletic. I’ve been incredibly impressed with him up to this point. I’m excited we were able to draft him.”

He should be excited. Ryan was sacked 44 times last season. He’s probably lucky to be alive after that. The offensive line had constant change and mediocre talent, but the selection of Matthews is just part of the upgrade plan for this season. The Falcons also brought in free agent Jon Asamoah to play next to Matthews at right guard. That’s quite an upgrade over Lamar Holmes and Garrett Reynolds, the two starters on that side a year ago.

Of course, the Falcons need Sam Baker to stay healthy. He played in only four games last season. Baker is needed to protect Ryan’s blind side at left tackle. Justin Blalock is the left guard, and he’s been a consistent pro for several years that you really don’t have to worry about.

Atlanta needs five-year veteran Joe Hawley to calm down a bit and win the starting job at center. Hawley got into a fight Sunday with rookie defender Ra’Shede Hageman and then got kicked out of the scrimmage Monday against Tennessee.

It’s good that Hawley is showing some toughness, since that’s what the Falcons wanted this preseason from both lines of scrimmage. But Hawley has to be a leader on the offensive line, just like center Todd McClure was for many years. So he can’t keep getting into fights and cost the team. No point in having to put in Hawley’s backup, Peter Konz, unless they absolutely have to.

Protecting Ryan is only half the issue. The line must open holes for the Falcons running backs, whether it’s Steven Jackson or rookie Devonta Freeman. The Falcons were last in the NFL last season in rush offense, and that must improve if they are to have a winning season.

Matthews and Asamoah will help make that happen. It can’t get any worse than last year.

The Falcons line looks much better, at least so far. And if the rookie from Texas A&M keeps looking this good, it might just become a strength of the team much sooner than we thought.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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