Making his second start at center this season, Falcons center Joe Hawley was buzzing around the field last Thursday, looking for a Saint — any Saint — to knock down.
On one play — a screen pass to Harry Douglas — Hawley took care of his snapping duties and then raced over toward the boundary to try to spring Douglas, a long haul for a center.
The Falcons are encouraged that Hawley has stabilized the position and that now they can focus on the troublesome right guard and right tackle slots before facing Buffalo on Sunday at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Hawley helped the run game against New Orleans, when the Falcons rushed for 91 yards, their third-highest output of the season. He and left guard Justin Blalock opened the way to the end zone on Steven Jackson 1-yard leap.
“Joe is a very active player,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He’s an athletic center, a little bit under-sized. But I thought that his play the last two weeks has been good.”
Hawley has displaced Peter Konz, a second-year player who started the first nine games at center.
“Joe has been around here longer, so he’s heard the schematics of what we want to do offensively,” Smith said.
Hawley played all 68 offensive snaps against New Orleans and all 71 plays the weekend before against Tampa Bay. Against the Saints, Hawley didn’t give up sack, hit or a quarterback hurry, according to profootballfocus.com. Against the Bucs, he gave up one hurry and one hit.
“It has felt good,” the fourth-year lineman said. “The games are the fun part. Getting out there and being able to play again was a lot of fun for me.”
Hawley was used as a blocking tight end early in the season and also played some fullback last season as a lead blocker.
“Conditioning was a little bit of an issue,” Hawley said. “The game-speed, you can’t really prepare for until you get out there.”
Hawley’s play has been one of the few bright spots for an embattled offensive line this season.
“We all root for each other out there,” Hawley said. “Some of us have been together as a group for a while now, but not necessarily starting. I’ve had the same guys in front of me. We rotate in and out at practice, so it’s not too much of a change.”
Blalock has played along side Hawley since his arrival.
“I felt really good about it,” Blalock said. “I think it speaks to his professionalism that when his named was called (at center), he stepped right up. He knows everything that’s going on.”
The Falcons selected Hawley in the fourth round of the 2010 draft from UNLV, where he played both center and guard. He played six games in 2012, when he was suspended four games violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
The Falcons have used five different personnel combinations on the offensive line since training camp. While Hawley has been an improvement, the Falcons are clearly not happy with their play at right guard, where they’ve yanked the starter in each of the past two games.
Konz started against Tampa Bay, but Garrett Reynolds was inserted after 17 plays and three sacks by Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Against New Orleans, Reynolds started, but was removed in the third quarter after giving up two sacks. Konz came on in relief.
“It’s all based on production,” Smith said. “We felt like we could strengthen our position by making that change.”
Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is scrapping, but losing too many battles. The Falcons’ alternatives at the position are rookie Ryan Schraeder and recently signed veteran Sean Locklear.
“We are going to look at getting Sean up to speed,” Smith said. “Again, he’s only been with us a little over a week. … He is an option for us.”
The line believes it can play better to close out what has been a tough season.
“We took a step back over this mini-bye (week) and really evaluated why we are doing these things over and over again,” Blalock said. “Obviously, Matt (Ryan) is being hit way too much. Whatever the case may be, we have to rectify all of that. Obviously, the brunt of it is on us. I can assure you that we will be busting our butts, trying to figure out ways to make that better.”