Falcons rookie Devonta Freeman is part of the team’s committee of running backs who will be rushing behind an offensive line that was made an offseason priority in Atlanta. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — To his credit, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan never once bristled at his offensive line — at least publicly — when he was under so much pressure last season.
No one would have blamed Ryan. He was sacked 44 times and was under duress — either hit or hurried — on nearly 40 percent of his dropbacks.
But while Ryan kept his cool, he also hopes that help is on the way after the team made protecting him the top offseason priority.
He couldn’t help but flash a smile when discussing rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews. His arrival was clearly more than a little piece of offseason news.
“Jake has done a great job,” said Ryan, who’ll take the field for the Falcons’ mandatory three-day minicamp on Tuesday.
After physical examinations on Monday, the Falcons had a morning walk-through and afternoon practice on Tuesday and will have one again today. They wrap things up with a morning practice Thursday.
Here are five things to watch for those fans who want to attend the open sessions.
• 1. Keep an eye on Matthews: Ryan said that Matthews’ head is swimming with information and that he has a way to go to learn all of the playbook. “But when you watch him, when he knows what he’s doing, he’s incredibly athletic,” Ryan said. “He’s got great feet. He’s stout. He’s strong. He’s quiet, which you’ve got to love from a young guy. … There is a real maturity to him … he’s going to be productive for us for a long time.”
• 2. Charging up the running game: Running backs Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman are charged with the resurgence of the rushing attack. “We’ve worked hard in the first two weeks of the OTAs and during our coaching sessions on our scheme in the run game,” Ryan said. “I think some of that has showed up. Although we are not in pads, I think that we’ve been pretty productive in our run periods and when we’ve worked on the run during practice.” The Falcons averaged 77.9 yards rushing per game last season, which was worst in the league. If they are able to run the ball better, Ryan’s protection would improve with the threat of play-action passes.
• 3. Watch the tightness of the offensive line: New offensive line coach Mike Tice has his unit looking pretty sharp. While injuries were a factor last year, the unit took most of the blame for the team’s slide from 13-3 to 4-12. The revamped first unit appears strong and some of the backups have shined in OTAs, too. “We’ve got some guys back that are healthy,” Ryan said. “It’s good to see Sam (Baker) out there flying around and feeling good. He’s an important part of what we do, too.”
• 4. The Hawley-Konz battle at center: Joe Hawley, who finished last season as the starting center, has been splitting first-team reps with Peter Konz, who opened last season as the starter. “Both guys have varying levels of experience,” Ryan said. “You have Pete, who started a bunch of games for us at the beginning of last year. He’s played a lot of guard in the past for us, too. I think he’s continuing to improve as a third-year guy. For a lot of people, you really start to come into your own in that third year.”
• 5. The inside linebacker competition: With the season-ending Achilles tendon surgery to Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons coach Mike Smith said the team will look at second-year players Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at the inside linebacker positions. Akeem Dent and rookie Prince Shembo are also in the mix. The Falcons have brought in a couple of veteran linebackers for tryouts and may have one more scheduled this week, but are not in a rush to sign one at this time.