Photo via Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports
The divisional playoff game in the NFC between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks could be decided at the line of scrimmage between the Falcons’ offensive line against the Seahawks’ defensive line.
Falcons’ left tackle Jake Matthews (Elkins) has the burden of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan against the Seahawks’ elite combination of pass rushers in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett (Taylor). Avril had 11.5 sacks in 2016 and Bennett had five sacks.
They met previously in week six when the Seahawks prevailed over the Falcons 26-24 at CenturyLink Field. Avril had two sacks and a forced fumble in the game.
The Falcons had trouble protecting Ryan with 37 sacks allowed, which is tied for 10th in the NFL and the Seahawks’ defense had 42 sacks, which was tied for third most.
Matthews shows the promise to be the best left tackle in the NFL. He just completed his third full season, and he has already made 47 starts in his career, while missing just one game. Matthews made an impact right away as the starting left tackle for the Falcons and according to Pro Football Reference, he posted an approximate value of eight in 15 starts as a rookie in 2014.
That year was the Falcons’ second straight losing season after three straight winning seasons, two of which were 13-3 seasons. In the offseason prior to the 2015 season, the Falcons added a new head coach in Dan Quinn and two new offensive linemen in Andy Levitre and Chris Chester and they improved to 8-8. Atlanta still had some problems as they won just three of their final eight games. But Matthews was solid again in his second season. He started all 16 games and had an approximate value of eight.
This year, the Falcons added Alex Mack at center, and the offensive line of Matthews, Levitre, Mack, Chester and Ryan Schraeder made 80 starts and produced the best offense in the NFL. The Falcons led the NFL in points scored by a significant margin at 540 points. They were the only team to eclipse 500 points scored with the next closest being the New Orleans Saints at 469 points.
Matthews, in his third season, started 16 games for the second consecutive season and missed only a handful of snaps. He had an approximate value of 12, which was the same value as teammate Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks. Matthews went against the likes of Lavonte David, Khalil Mack, Cameron Jordan, Shane Ray, Nick Perry, Chandler Jones and Thomas Davis.
Perhaps the most representative aspect of how great this year has been for Matthews, was how well quarterback Matt Ryan played. Ryan, who is likely the top candidate to win the NFL’s MVP award, passed for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions and he led the NFL in eight different categories.
With dynamic weapons like Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Taylor Gabriel (John Horn), Ryan just needs enough pass protection to find a play maker in Kyle Shanahan’s stylized offense and Matthews has helped with that.
Matthews is already one of the top five left tackles in the NFL, and if he can cut down on his penalties, he’ll become a Hall of Famer like his father Bruce Matthews, who played 18 seasons for the Houston Oilers and the Tennessee Titans.
However, unlike his father, who only appeared in one Super Bowl in 1999 against the great St. Louis Rams, Matthews hopes to get to the Super Bowl in his hometown and win.
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