After witnessing center struggles in 2015, the most reassuring free agent signing for Falcons fans this offseason was Alex Mack. The three-time Pro Bowler has reunited with former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who spent 2014 with the Cleveland Browns. Although Mack only played five games under Shanahan in 2014, due to suffering a broken leg, he is the perfect fit for the Falcons zone-blocking scheme. Furthermore, given the costly misplaced snaps from guard-center convert Mike Person last season, Falcons fans are really hoping that Mack will elevate an already solid offensive line. My focus here is not on Mack’s general skillset, rather I will be looking at specific plays that are to be expected from him. This is the first of two pieces and this piece will focus only on Mack’s pass protection. So what should the Falcons expect from Alex Mack in the passing game this upcoming season?
Ability to handle one-on-ones
The most overwhelming pressure a defense can produce in the passing game is through the middle. Therefore, the ability to handle one-on-ones and solidify the interior line is a requirement of a top-tier center. Fortunately, Mack is outstanding at mirroring pass rushers in one-on-ones and this is largely due to the fluidity of his movement. In pass protection, he consistently plays with a straight back and with bend at the knees, rather than the waist. These fundamental ensure that he maintains blocks with balance and power.
Furthermore, Mack plays with the aggression and unwavering effort that Coach Quinn expects of his players. The combination of Mack’s mentality and his technical abilities provides him with the ability to recovery in one-on-ones, even if he loses the initial contact. As seen below, against PPF’s top-rated interior pass rusher, Aaron Donald, Mack loses the initial collision but is able to recover to prevent Donald making a big play. From tape, it is obvious that Mack is an intelligent player. He has a great awareness of where his quarterback is throughout the whole play, and demonstrates calmness by not overcompensating and losing balance even if the he struggles initially.
Angle of Engaging
One of the greatest strengths of Mack’s game is the angles from which he engages defenders and the placement of his hands. He consistently controls the inside shoulder of defenders to nullify their pass rush attempts. Mack utilises angle blocking, which is a central feature of zone-blocking schemes. Angle blocking minimises the effectiveness of bull rushes from defensive linemen. Rather than absorbing the full impact of bull rushes from more powerful defenders, Mack will goad defensive linemen into attacking certain gaps, and if they do so, he will engage their inside shoulder and use their momentum to usher them away from making a play.
Andy Levitre and Chris Chester had surprisingly impressive seasons for the Falcons in 2015. The addition of Alex Mack will undoubtedly elevate this interior unit because of his effectiveness in double-teams. For the most part, Mack is patient in pass protection and has the awareness to isolate which defensive linemen needs to be double-teamed. Moreover, because of his excellent body positioning in pass protection, Mack is often able to stand up defensive line and therefore making their pass rush ineffective. One very promising nuance of Mack’s game is his desire to laterally drive defenders away from the interior and therefore laterally away from the quarterback. By removing defenders from the interior, Matt Ryan will not consistently have the hands of defensive linemen in his face. The benefit of this is twofold. Firstly, this will give Matt Ryan unhindered vision of his throwing lanes. Secondly, this will create running lanes for scrambles up the middle.
Weakness against stunts
The one real weakness of Mack in pass protection is his slow reactions to defensive line stunts. Sometimes he is too eager to assist his guards and engage in double-teams. This leaves him susceptible to stunts because his body shape and balance is focussed away from the oncoming rusher. Although this is not a flaw in Mack’s game that can’t be remedied, it is worth noting that defensive coordinators are aware of this weakness. For example, in October 2015, as the Broncos were defending a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips noticeably increased his use of stunts that targeted Mack. However, if Mack has confidence in his guards in Atlanta and is able to be more patient in deciding which pass rusher to engage, this problem shouldn’t persist.
What to Expect
Alex Mack should dramatically decrease the pressure Matt Ryan faces up the middle. Although Andy Levitre and Chris Chester performed well last season, their run blocking was greatly superior to their pass protection. Mack’s ability to cope with one-on-ones and intelligence in double-teaming will ease the stress on Levitre and Chester. With Ryan Schraeder playing exceptionally well and Jake Matthews starting to really find his feet in the NFL, I expect Alex Mack to be the interior lynchpin that the Falcons need to be a top-ranking offensive line. After seeing Matt Ryan get mauled by defences in recent years, the addition of Mack gives Matt Ryan the offensive line that will allow him to play to his best and this is very welcome news for Falcons fans.
What do you think Alex Mack will contribute to the Falcons passing game? Be sure to check in later for my thoughts on what Alex Mack will provide in the run.