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Burning questions: Will Dirk Koetter have a real run game?

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Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Atlanta’s passing game is expected to be incredible in 2019 — Matt Ryan is an elite QB who’s coming off of a season where he just threw for 4,924 passing yards, 35 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions, while registering a passer rating of 108.1. Julio Jones is the best wide receiver in the league, and is part of an unbelievable WR trio at Ryan’s disposal. But what about the other side of the offense? What about the run game?

The Falcons had a stellar passing offense last year as well (fourth-best in the league), but the total offense failed to reach their maximum potential because of the team’s 27th ranked rushing attack.

That failure in the run game was mostly because of factors out of then offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s control — star RB Devonta Freeman played in two games and was sidelined with injuries the rest of the way; starting guards Brandon Fusco and Andy Levitre suffered early season-ending injuries and their backups ended up being significant downgrades; Tevin Coleman didn’t take full advantage of his opportunity as a starter.

Things should be different for new OC Dirk Koetter and Atlanta’s offense this season. Freeman, who’s been dealing with nagging injuries ever since the Divisional Round game against the Philadelphia Eagles in January of 2018, looks like he’s fully healthy heading into the season. As early as May of this year, both Freeman and head coach Dan Quinn emphasized that the Florida State alum would be a “full go” for Training Camp and beyond.

Under Koetter’s leadership as head coach, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished fifth in the NFL in rushing yards in 2015, but couldn’t finish higher than 24th in 2016, 2017, or 2018. That has something to do with the talent he had at his disposal at the RB position — Doug Martin was a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2015, and then completely fell off following that season.

Jacquizz Rodgers for five games in 2016 is the only starting RB who achieved a yards per carry rate of at least 4.0 after that 2015 campaign, for the Bucs. Martin started eight games in each of 2016 and 2017 and had an abysmal ypc of 2.9 in each of those seasons. Peyton Barber failed to reach the 4.0 ypc plateau in the four games he started in 2017, and he didn’t reach it in the full 16 games he started in 2018 either.

Freeman will be by far the best RB Koetter has worked with since Martin in his incredible 2015 season.

Koetter has shown a willingness to dial up the run when he’s had a worthy starter to lean on. Tampa Bay finished eighth in the league in rushing attempts in 2015. There was no strong starter at RB for him to work with in his first stint as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14, but before that he had Maurice Jones-Drew in his time as Jacksonville’s OC.

Koetter dialed up a league-leading 343 carries for Jones-Drew in a 2011 season where the Jags’ superstar RB also lead the league in rushing yards and was a First-Team All-Pro selection at the position. Jacksonville finished fourth in total rushing attempts that season. They finished third in total rushing attempts in 2010, another Pro Bowl season for Jones-Drew. In 2009, Koetter dialed up Jones-Drew for over 300 carries.

If Freeman is healthy and spry, Atlanta’s new OC will not ignore him in the grant scheme of things. Behind Freeman, Atlanta also possesses an impressive amount of backup running back talent in the form of Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison, Brian Hill, and Kenjon Barner (mostly on the roster for the return game). Smith, Ollison, and Hill were all either fourth or fifth round draft selections by the Falcons over the years, with Smith and Ollison being selected in the past two drafts.

Head coach Dan Quinn is excited about the group, saying that the Birds are deeper than they’ve been at the position.

While none of those three primary backup options would instill a lot of confidence as long-term starters, they can play a vital role in helping to limit Freeman’s carries a bit in an attempt to keep the two-time Pro Bowler fresh and healthy.

Atlanta could deploy a running back by committee approach where Freeman still gets the most carries but is spelled near the goal line by Ollison, who figures to slot in as a big power back, and on some third downs by Smith, who had a catch percentage of 84.4% on 32 targets last season.

Atlanta’s new look offensive line should also be a catalyst for a successful rushing attack. First round selections Chris Lindstom at right guard and Kaleb McGary at right tackle are both run blocking savants, while the duo of Jamon Brown and James Carpenter at left guard should be an upgrade over Atlanta’s guards and backups guards from last season. Then you also have the ever-reliable Jake Matthews and Alex Mack as the holdovers from last year’s line.

This should be the first time in a number of years where the Birds will have a big offensive line capable of making that direct push on third or fourth-and-short in the run game. It would surprise me if the offense lined up in the shotgun formation on those specific down and distances, the way they were forced to with a small, zone-blocking line in years prior.

Don’t expect Matt Ryan to have to throw for over 4,900 yards again this season to propel Atlanta’s offense into the top 10 once again. Not because he doesn’t have that ability (obviously does, as we’ve seen in two of the past three seasons), but because he won’t have to. The run game will be a major asset to Atlanta’s offense in 2019.