FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons have some of the most dynamic offensive players in the league.
Matt Ryan. Julio Jones. Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez. Steven Jackson.
It may not matter if they don't get better blocking.
Already a giant question mark coming into the season, the offensive linemen did nothing to alleviate those concerns in a 23-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 1.
Coach Mike Smith tried to downplay the line's performance on Monday, saying it falls on the entire offense to make sure Ryan has enough time to throw.
"It wasn't just the offensive line," Smith insisted.
But the guys in the trenches looked horribly overmatched against a Saint defense that, while revamped and playing a different scheme, still has many of the same players who produced some of the worst numbers in NFL history a year ago.
Ryan was sacked three times, hit six other times and had everything from an intentional grounding penalty to a throw-away on third-and-goal.
This might be dismissed as an anomaly if not for the Falcons having only two starters in the same positions they played a year ago.
Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012, has been forced into a starting role at right tackle after Tyson Clabo was cut in a salary-cap move, and projected replacement Mike Johnson went down in training camp with season-ending injury. Garrett Reynolds, who has started only 14 games in five seasons, is the new right guard. Peter Konz, who started at guard last season, shifted to center after the retirement of Todd McClure.
Left tackle Sam Baker and left guard Justin Blalock are the lone holdovers from last season's starting unit. Baker is the only first-round pick in the bunch.
"We don't want Matt to be under any pressure," Konz said. "We don't want anyone touching Matt, much less sacking him."
Ryan completed 25 of 38 passes for 304 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but there were far too many times when he had to throw with defenders in his face or couldn't throw at all. The Falcons were so desperate to give Ryan better protection, they actually sent in backup lineman Joe Hawley as an extra blocker on a few plays — a formation normally used in short-yardage running situations, not when they're planning to throw.
On Atlanta's final drive, when the team faced fourth-and goal at the Saints 3 with less than a minute remaining, Ryan had to throw quicker than he wanted and was picked off by Roman Harper in the end zone. New Orleans brought the pressure with only three rushers, dropping the other eight players into coverage.
"I want our offensive line to be so good they're confident we can block who we need to block, so we have a chance to use all our weapons," Konz said.
The Falcons will face an even tougher test Sunday when they host St. Louis in the home opener. Last season, the Rams had 52 sacks, tied for the NFL lead with Denver. They're off to another hot start, recording four sacks in a 27-24 win over Arizona. Robert Quinn had three of those takedowns and is surely licking his chops at the chance to go against Atlanta's shaky line.
While Smith acknowledged there's always competition for the starting spots — and he's held open auditions in the past — the Falcons don't have a whole lot of options.
Jeremy Trueblood is the most prominent name among the backups, but he signed with the Falcons just a week ago and has had only a couple of full practices with his new team. He wasn't even active against the Saints. The only other linemen to play in New Orleans were Hawley, a fourth-year player who hasn't been able to hold a starting job, and undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder from Division II Valdosta State.
"I'm absolutely confident we've got right guys," Smith insisted. "I think we will see a large improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 in terms of not only the offensive line, but the entire football team. The biggest jump you have during the season in always from Week 1 to Week 2. We're playing a lot of younger guys who have not played much. This was a great learning experience for them. Unfortunately, we didn't get the outcome in the ballgame that we wanted."