With training camp only a few days away, it’s worth taking a closer look at the state of the Falcons’ roster. The position with the most significant turnover in terms of lost production is RB. 2018 starter Tevin Coleman, who took over for Devonta Freeman after his season-ending injury, departed in free agency to join Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.
Coleman was a key piece of the Falcons’ offense, particularly with his contributions in the receiving game. His game-breaking speed led to a lot of explosive plays and chunk yardage, and he was a major contributor on that historic 2016 offense. He struggled with consistency as a starting RB in 2018, as his vision, balance, and elusiveness weren’t enough to find success behind a porous offensive line.
His tendency to create big plays offset a lot of those issues, but that “boom-or-bust” running style led to a lot of unfavorable situations on second and third down. With a healthy Devonta Freeman returning and an offseason emphasis on improving the offensive line, we should expect a far more consistent rushing attack for the Falcons this season. Will that be an improvement over an explosive but inconsistent ground game? Is that consistency more important to the offense than the big plays? Let’s dig a little deeper into the stats to find out.
In 2018, the Falcons finished 27th in the NFL in total rushing yards with 1,573, or 98.3 yards/game. However, they were actually 12th in yards per carry average with 4.5—a very healthy number. You might wonder why Atlanta’s production was so low despite a top-15 finish in YPC: their number of rushing attempts. The Falcons were 30th in the NFL in rushing attempts with only 345. To give that some context, the Cleveland Browns were 16th (aka league average) in rushing attempts with 410—60 more than Atlanta.
Looking at these raw numbers paints a puzzling picture. Their YPC suggests a successful rushing attack, but their overall production suggests a poor one. Part of the problem stems from the team’s defensive struggles. If you’re trailing in a game and you have a potent passing attack at your disposal, you’re much more likely to throw the ball to catch up. The Falcons, for the record, had one of the NFL’s premier passing offenses in 2018: they were 4th in total passing yardage and T-7th in yards per attempt. They were also one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the NFL with 617 passing attempts, good for 5th overall.
Diving deeper into the offense, we see a very interesting picture. If you haven’t been there already, I definitely recommend you check out Sharp Football Stats for extremely detailed breakdowns of every facet of a team’s offense and defense. We’ll be specifically looking at Sharp’s Directional Rushing Production, which you can find here. Make sure you select ATL to see the Falcons’ offense, specifically.
Tevin Coleman, as we all know, received the bulk of the carries with 167. In second place was Ito Smith with 90, and none of the other backs logged more than 20. To Coleman’s credit, he was very efficient on his carries: his 4.8 YPC average is very good. Smith struggled from an overall production standpoint, with a rather pedestrian 3.5 YPC.
The biggest red flag in these stats has to be the production of the Coleman/Smith duo on first down. Coleman logged a slightly above-average 4.2 YPC, but that paled in comparison to his very good 5.2 YPC on second down an excellent 9.0 YPC average on third down. Smith actually managed his best YPC on first down, but that was still only 3.9 YPC. Those numbers are particularly alarming for an offense that ran most frequently on first down: 162 of their rushing attempts (54%) came on first down, compared to 121 (40%) on second down and only 14 (5%) on third down.
It’s abundantly clear that the Falcons’ didn’t trust their short yardage running game based on those third down numbers. Atlanta was also abysmal running behind center and right guard, with 3.2 and 3.1 YPC, respectively. That might explain why the Falcons were so eager to improve their interior OL, and it’s likely that Alex Mack’s performance was impacted heavily by the poor play around him.
With a struggling defense and poor production on first down, the Falcons’ offense often found themselves behind the sticks in 2018 despite the explosive plays offered by Coleman. Heading into 2019, Atlanta is expecting an improved defense and offensive line. But instead of looking to replace Coleman with another explosive RB (although you could argue that Marcus Green might fill a similar role), the Falcons targeted a short-yardage back in Qadree Ollison. This suggests a move towards consistency and balance on offense, which was a key to their success in 2016.
By comparison, the 2016 offense was far more balanced between the run and pass. The Falcons were, incredibly, 26th in passing attempts that season—and still finished as the NFL’s 3rd most productive pass offense due to Ryan’s absurd 9.2 YPA. Atlanta’s ground attack finished 12th in rushing attempts with 421—almost 80 more than their 2018 season. Part of that certainly leads back to game script, as the Falcons frequently led late in games. But the other side of the coin is the first down production: Devonta Freeman (and Coleman) were far more consistent in 2016, with 5.4 and 5.0 YPC, respectively.
The goal should be to return to the 2016 offensive strategy, not the 2018 (and 2017) strategy. Having Freeman as the lead back—who offers far more consistency—and an improved offensive line should move the needle in the right direction. Part of the reason the 2016 offense was so deadly was the ability of Freeman to put the offense in 2nd/3rd and short, opening up the playbook for more deep shots and play action throws. The addition of rookie Qadree Ollison to the RB corps also opens the door for a more physical presence in short-yardage situations.
Despite the NFL trending more and more towards passing, we are still seeing balanced offensive attacks thrive. Kansas City and New England, in particular, stood out for their ability to win with both the run and pass game in 2018. The Falcons will be hoping to return to that style in 2019, and a more consistent ground game will go a long way in fulfilling that goal. They’ll miss the big-play threat that Coleman added out of the backfield, but with a plethora of receiving weapons that can stretch the field (Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper) that loss won’t hurt as much as it could have.
What are your thoughts on the Falcons’ rushing attack heading into 2019? Do you think a consistent ground game is more important than an explosive but unreliable one? How big of a difference will Freeman’s return and the OL upgrades make to Atlanta’s 2019 offense?