- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff got an early Christmas gift Monday night: improved play on the offensive line.
No, it was not a strong enough performance to wipe out every bad memory from this season. But it was an encouraging sign from a unit that was expected to be dominated by a San Francisco 49ers front seven touted as arguably the best in the NFL.
Falcons coach Mike Smith hasn’t singled out the play of an offensive lineman too often this season. Tuesday afternoon, he singled out three.
Although quarterback Matt Ryan did a masterful job improvising at times, his pocket was clean for the most part, which helped him complete a career-high 37 passes. He was sacked just once and was able to go deep more than he had all season.
"The interior of the pocket was a little more stout," Smith said. "I thought that we did a very good job with scheming, with chipping, helping and having backs chip out, tight ends chip out before they went into their routes.
"The two tackles [Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder], they had tough draws. I thought they handled it well. I thought Matt [had a] very good pocket as well. And I really feel, after watching the tape on the ride back and watching it this morning, that Joe Hawley did a nice job cleaning the pocket up."
Hawley has been solid at center since taking the starting job away from Peter Konz, so his performance wasn’t that shocking. But Holmes held his own at left tackle against pass-rush demon Aldon Smith, while right tackle Schraeder did the same against Ahmad Brooks. Schrader fared well against Smith, too.
Holmes had a couple of false starts in the first half, but he settled down in the second half and competed with Smith. Bad technique seemed to cause Schraeder to fall on his back during one play, but he quickly shook it off.
"I thought Ryan Schraeder continued to show improvement, as an undrafted rookie getting his second start on 'Monday Night Football,'" Smith said. "I thought he did a nice job. He battled. He battled against a very good front seven."
The Falcons need to find five players capable of battling each and every week. Hawley looks like a keeper at center, while left guard Justin Blalock has been the only offensive lineman to keep his starting job throughout the season. Schraeder continues to show promise as the right tackle of the future, while the Falcons hope to get left tackle Sam Baker back healthy next season after knee surgery.
The coaches still believe Holmes has a bright future despite his obvious struggles. And the fact that Harland Gunn played 45 snaps at left guard against the 49ers, compared with 27 for Konz, is telling in terms of Konz’s status after losing his job at center.
If the line manages to string together back-to-back strong performances, the coaches truly would have something to build upon. And the Falcons finish the season against another one of league’s top defensive fronts in the Carolina Panthers.