FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta’s offensive line is keeping Matt Ryan on his feet.
That’s a big reason the Falcons are 2-0.
Ryan has been sacked only twice. He has five touchdown passes with no interceptions as the Falcons prepare to play San Diego, another 2-0 team, on Sunday.
Coach Mike Smith challenged the offensive line in the off-season, saying starting jobs were open for competition.
The veterans kept their jobs.
Left tackle Sam Baker is winning compliments from his teammates after surviving the off-season challenge. Baker held Denver’s two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Elvis Dumervil without a sack Monday night.
“Our offensive line is doing a great job,” Ryan said. “Against a really good pass-rushing team, to give up one sack that’s a credit to our guys and our tackles played really well. It’s a combined effort with the five guys up front and our running backs in pass protection. We’ve been solid in it, and we need to continue to be solid in it.”
Right tackle Tyson Clabo gave up the Broncos’ only sack to Von Miller but also played well.
“You’ve got to give credit to our tackles for stepping up,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said Thursday. “This is the best I’ve seen Sam Baker play. Clabo has always been solid.”
Ryan has had enough time to move the offense through the air as the team has struggled to run the ball.
“Through the first two games, they’ve done a very nice job protecting the quarterback,” Smith said after Thursday’s practice. “We’ve done some nice things in terms of the scheme and we’ve also done some improvement in terms of our one-on-one. Both of our tackles last week had tough draws on both sides of the rush and I thought they did a nice job.”
Ryan and Baker were the first two draft picks for general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith. Ryan was the third overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft. Baker was picked later in the first round.
This is a crucial season for Baker, whose five-year contract expires after the season.
He has had three back surgeries since his rookie season, including two discectomy procedures last year to remove herniated disc material.
Baker appears to be at his best after starting only six games last season. Smith said Baker “is as healthy as he’s ever been.”
Baker’s health will be closely watched, especially after backup Will Svitek suffered a season-ending right arm injury before the season.
A key to the line’s success is continuity. Most of the line has been together for five years.
Left guard Justin Blalock has started since 2007. Clabo made his first start in 2006. Center Todd McClure, 35, is in his 13th season. Right guard Garrett Reynolds, who made his first start last season, is the newcomer.
“When you’re able to have the same lineup day in and day out, you get a feel for the guy next to you,” Blalock said. “It’s like playing cards and having the same partner. You’re able to kind of have the same set of eyes. You see the same thing and sometimes you might not even need to communicate it.”
Blalock and McClure said first-year offensive line coach Pat Hill, the former Fresno State coach, has helped the line with his lessons on proper technique.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things: coach Hill working on our techniques as pass-blockers, Matt is getting the ball out of his hands quick, receivers being in the right spot,” McClure said.
McClure said the offense eventually will need better balance. The Falcons have only 151 yards rushing. Michael Turner, who is expected to keep his starting job this week following his DUI arrest after Monday night’s game, has only 74 yards rushing and one of the team’s two touchdowns on the ground.
Turner continued to work with the first-team offense on Thursday.
“I think that’s something we want to do better and will work hard to do that,” said Ryan of the running game. “It’s early. I’m sure we’ll make the adjustments we need to make and we’ve got talented guys. We’ve got really good offensive linemen and really good backs. We just need to keep working on it.”
Notes: CB Christopher Owens (concussion) and running back Antone Smith (hamstring) were held out for the second straight day. The loss of Owens would further deplete a secondary that lost CB Brent Grimes with a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1. ... The Falcons will practice Friday at their facility before flying to San Diego. The team will have a light practice in San Diego on Saturday. Smith normally has the team travel one day early for games on the west coast. The Falcons are 5-0 with Smith on the west coast, including a win at San Diego in 2008.