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The Care and Feeding of a Wild Offensive Line


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The Care and Feeding of a Wild Offensive Line


Published: December 25, 2008

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — On Christmas Eve, it was difficult to maneuver through the section of the locker room where the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive linemen hang their helmets. The players’ ankle tape was peeled off, and one had to step around it so it would not stick to one’s shoe. There were clumps of mud and grass to dodge while cleats were strewn here and there.

What made it an especially tight path were all those boxes holding 42-inch plasma televisions. Next to the cubicles of the starting offensive linemen, tight ends and fullback Ovie Mughelli was the merchandise of success: big-screen gifts from quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner.

“You take care of me, I take care of you,” Turner said.

Turner and Ryan, two of the biggest offensive surprises of the 2008 N.F.L. season, have been well taken care of by the Falcons’ line, which has made a startling redemption from a dismal 2007 season.

It is basically the same players who gave up 47 sacks in 2007, but have allowed just 16 this season.

The same line that could not plow for its running backs last season (its 95 rushing yards a game was 26th in the N.F.L.), leads a ground game that averages 145 yards, fifth best in the league.

The Falcons are 10-5 and have reached the playoffs behind Ryan, who could be the N.F.L. rookie of the year, and Turner, who is starting for the first time in his career after backing up LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.

Their custodians on the line are led by center Todd McClure, a 10-year veteran, and left tackle Todd Weiner, an 11-year veteran. The cast also includes left guard Justin Blalock, who has been in the N.F.L. two seasons, and right tackle Tyson Clabo and right guard Harvey Dahl, who were undrafted free agents when they came into the league in 2004 and 2005. Tight ends Ben Hartsock and Justin Peelle also received TVs.

“We went through a lot last year, and the one thing we never did was turn on each other,” Clabo said. “We knew we had the talent, and then here comes this assistant coach, Paul Boudreau, with all this experience, and the game is fun again. Last year, they tried to kill all the fun with Petrino.”

The line called its offensive meeting room the No Fun Zone under the former head coach Bobby Petrino, who quit before the end of a 4-12 season. It became a morose team, especially during team meals, when silence was ordered and the only noise was forks spearing food on plates.

“This year, we’re clowns again,” Clabo said.

Other teams, however, prefer harsher labels for the Atlanta line. Denver linebacker Jamie Winborn insists the Falcons are part-time thugs with hits just after the last tweet of the whistle. Other opponents have been incensed by a physical style they claim is borderline dirty.

Weiner listened to the description of the Falcons’ play and smiled at McClure, who smiled back.

“We are going to come out and play to the whistle, and it makes guys mad,” Weiner said. “You go to the whistle, and there are guys who think it’s a cheap shot. When has playing to the whistle been a cheap shot? Don’t stop blocking. Guys in this league aren’t used to that, and all of a sudden it’s cheap.”

McClure said Boudreau barked at the linemen the first few days of training camp when he did not think play was physical enough. The coach wanted an extra shove, or two.

The acerbic identity of the line bloomed in a preseason game against Tennessee. There were moments, McClure said, when the officials lost control as players shoved one another after the whistle in what was supposed to be an inconsequential game.

“That game sent a message,” McClure said. “That Tennessee bunch is a physical bunch, and they are always trying to jump on a pile and hit your backs late. So we wanted to step up to the challenge, and it kind of got a little out of hand. It took off after that game for us. There was extra shoving and pushing, and they didn’t like it. We realized it would be a lot of fun to do that the whole season.”

The chief agitator, Weiner said, is Dahl, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound guard who came off the line so hard on one touchdown run by Turner against Carolina this season that he almost knocked himself out hitting a defender.

“I have received a lot of comments across the line; they are always talking about Harvey,” Weiner said. “They say: ‘What’s wrong with that guy? Does he have some screws loose?’ He just plays hard.”

The passion of the line explains some success on run plays. On pass plays, Clabo said, Ryan has a lot to do with the low number of sacks because of his pocket presence and his ability to get rid of the ball quickly.

“It changes the way people rush us,” Clabo said. “A lot of teams work line games in their pass rush, but now they don’t think they can get to the quarterback, so we’re getting a lot of bull rush. They are trying to collapse the pocket because they don’t think, if they work moves, they can get to Matt before the ball is gone.”

The Falcons’ line can now watch the highlights of Ryan’s success, and their handiwork on the big screens provided by their quarterback and running back.

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