FLOWERY BRANCH–Playing left tackle in the NFL is one of the toughest jobs in sports.
Trying to do it with a balky back — and who knows what else — like Falcons tackle Sam Baker did for who knows how long, makes it nearly impossible.
As Baker struggled last season and eventually lost his job, his linemates kept saying his health was the issue. But in the cold, bottom-line business of professional football, the reasons for Baker’s struggle hardly mattered. He had to play better.
He’s doing so now, in no small part because he’s also healthier now. So it’s satisfying for Baker to have the kind of season that he and his teammates always knew he could.
“For all these guys that have always had my back and stood by me, to be back playing well feels real good right now,” Baker said.
When the Falcons selected Baker with the No. 21 overall pick in the 2008 draft, it was with the idea that he would be a building block along with quarterback Matt Ryan. They had selected Ryan 13 spots earlier and now had the tackle they expected to protect his back side from pass rushers for years.
But after Baker lost his job to Will Svitek during the 2011 season, it wasn’t clear if he would return to make his $2.6 million salary this season. Along the way, Baker has undergone three back surgeries but he is still here and the Falcons are better off for it.
“He’s battled through some injuries in the past few years, some things that not everybody knew about,” Falcons center Todd McClure said. “He’s having some success and he’s a different guy mentally. I’m really happy for him.”
Falcons offensive line coach Pat Hill was hired after last season and so all he’s known is a healthy, productive Baker. He said Baker is diligent, intelligent and watches plenty of film in preparation for his opponents, who typically are the opposition’s best pass-rushers along the defensive line.
Hill likens playing left tackle to golf, in that the player’s pass protection set-up must be consistent, and basketball, because linemen must protect the quarterback like he’s the basket and the opponents are trying to score. Hill said Baker is in a consistent groove like a golfer and also isn’t biting on the assorted fakes ends use to try to get to Ryan.
“Every week he is playing against a premiere pass-rusher,” Hill said. “I think Sam has done a very good job this year. He’s worked on his fundamentals. I think he’s held up really well out there.”
Hill said his group takes the job of keeping Ryan upright very seriously and the line, with Baker as the anchor in pass protection, has been efficient this season.
The Falcons have allowed 25 sacks on 539 pass attempts. The 4.6 sack percentage ranks second to the Giants (3.3) among NFC playoff qualifiers and contenders.
According NFL statistics, Atlanta’s opponents have recorded 69 total hits against the quarterback, a 12.8 percentage of all drop-backs. That percentage ranks third behind the Giants (8.6) and Cowboys (11.8) among the NFC’s top teams.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said cohesiveness has helped the offensive linemen, most of whom have been together for several seasons.
Baker has started 55 games since 2008. Center Todd McClure started seven games in 2000 and has been the full-time starter in every season since. Left guard Justin Blalock has been a starter since 2007 and right tackle Tyson Clabo since 2006.
Even with rookie guard Peter Konz joining the lineup this season, the Falcons still have one of the most experienced groups. According to the NFL, the 447 combined career starts by Atlanta’s linemen are third-most in the league behind Detroit (592) and Tennessee (457)
“The offensive line, probably of any position group, is a group that you have to try to keep together if you can,” Smith said.
The Falcons will have to make some decisions about that soon. Clabo and Blalock each signed long-term deals in July 2011 and Konz’s rookie deal is for four years.
But McClure is on a one-year contract and Baker is in the final year of the contract he signed as a rookie.
Baker can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. He said he’d like to re-sign with the Falcons.
“Definitely,” he said. “I don’t know how everything shakes out. But I love living here. My home is here. We will see how everything plays out.”
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