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Monday, September 26, 2011
Changes coming to Atlanta's O-line?


In his Monday afternoon news conference, Atlanta coach Mike Smith admitted he’s not happy with the play of his offensive line. It’s good that Smith realizes he’s got a problem on his hands, because that much has been pretty obvious to the world for the first three games.

Sam Baker
Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker, right, has struggled this season against players like Julius Peppers.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is getting hit more than he ever has before and the Falcons had only 30 rushing yards in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay.

But how do you fix offensive line problems in the middle of a season? Smith said he and his coaching staff will take a hard look at their scheme and personnel. He also said all the positions on the line are open to competition, and the guys who play best in practice will play Sunday in Seattle.

The sudden collapse of Atlanta’s offensive line is a little puzzling. The Falcons did lose right guard Harvey Dahl in free agency. But that was a departure the Falcons willingly allowed. They had used several draft picks on offensive linemen in recent years to prepare for that scenario.

Garrett Reynolds won the job in training camp, but he’s been one of the guys who has struggled most. The Falcons could look to a pair of second-year pros, Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson, to replace Reynolds. Johnson was in a close competition with Reynolds throughout the preseason. Hawley started the first two games at center because Todd McClure was hurt. But McClure returned Sunday and Hawley also can play guard.

I can see the Falcons shaking things up and giving either Hawley or Johnson a shot at starting. But the other problem area -- and a much bigger one -- has been at left tackle. That position is held by Sam Baker. He was drafted the same year as Ryan, and the thinking was the Falcons wanted a franchise left tackle to protect their franchise quarterback.

Baker’s first three seasons were far from great, but he wasn’t a liability. This year, he’s become one. There’s no easy or obvious way to solve this problem. The only backup tackle the Falcons have is Will Svitek. He’s a career backup, but he did an adequate job while starting two games for an injured Baker in 2009.

Svitek isn’t the long-term answer at this position. But maybe the Falcons should make one last-ditch effort to light a fire under Baker. Maybe they should bench him and start Svitek for a game or two. Maybe that will inspire Baker and he can win the job back in practice and play well the rest of the season.

Or maybe, benching or not benching Baker will have no real impact. That’s not a real pleasant prospect.

At this time of year, you can’t just go out and find a solid left tackle, because they’re all playing for someone else. Unless Baker really steps up his game the rest of the season, the Falcons will have to use next year’s draft or free-agency period to find a left tackle.