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The Falcons finally got a strong performance from the run game, but squandered it

On a day when the Falcons were averaging over 6.6 yards per carry on the ground, the offense managed just 16 points. Atlanta finally got a strong performance from the run game, but squandered it by failing to utilize it effectively.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

All throughout the 2020 offseason, we heard talk from the coaching staff about wanting to “establish balance” and “emphasize the run game”. All this despite offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter being wholly unfamiliar with the Kyle Shanahan-esque West Coast offense he’d been brought in to run, and lacking any history of calling productive rushing attacks outside of his first few years in Jacksonville with Maurice Jones-Drew. Needless to say, hopes weren’t exactly high for the Falcons to succeed in this endeavor.

Through the first five games of the season, the Falcons are sitting at 0-5. Despite our trepidations about how Koetter would be able to energize what was among the league’s worst rushing attacks in 2019, Atlanta has thus far been about average overall in rushing production. While they haven’t put up eye-popping numbers, the team has had 3 good rushing performances thus far: against the Cowboys in Week 2, the Bears in Week 3, and the Panthers in Week 5.

The Falcons are currently 17th in rushing yardage per game and 12th in yards per carry, averaging 114.6 and 4.4, respectively. Free agent addition Todd Gurley, despite appearing to have a lost a little of his juice and elusiveness, has been having a pretty good season in 2020. Gurley currently has 79 carries for 379 yards (4.7 YPC) and 5 TDs through the first 5 games of the season. He’s no longer a burner, but his strength, contact balance, and vision are still very good. With good blocking—like he’s received over the past few games—Gurley can still be an effective RB1.

Beyond Gurley, fourth-year RB Brian Hill is also having a good year as a secondary runner. Hill has 25 carries for 133 yards (5.3 YPC) and 1 TD through the first part of the season. He’s also been more effective as a receiver than Gurley, although the Falcons have not targeted their backs at nearly the same rate as 2019 (when Devonta Freeman was a fixture of the passing game).

So it seems that, somehow, Dirk Koetter has actually been able to deliver a serviceable rushing attack for the first time in his Atlanta tenure. That’s nice to see. What isn’t so nice is that Koetter—despite apparently having two quality backs at his disposal—still lacks a good feel for when and how to utilize the rushing attack to close out games and capitalize on opponent’s weaknesses. This was readily apparently against Dallas, Chicago, and blatantly so against Carolina.

We all know Koetter loves the passing game, and he should: on balance, the Falcons are a more effective passing offense compared to rushing. But there are actually some situations where it is more advantageous to run than pass, like trying to take advantage of favorable matchups. Against the Panthers, this was obvious to even casual fans watching the game: Carolina struggled mightily to stop the run, and were very effective at slowing down the passing game.

A pre-game analysis of the statistics heading into the Week 5 matchup made this abundantly clear. The Panthers were bad against the run: 21st in rushing yardage allowed, and 29th in yards per carry allowed. Against the pass, Carolina was far better: 7th in passing yardage allowed, and a very impressive 3rd in yards per attempt allowed. To combat this, the Falcons needed to attempt a run-heavy approach—which would also help keep their defense off the field.

To Koetter’s credit, Atlanta actually started the game off by doing exactly that. The Falcons started off with a few short passes, then shredded Carolina’s defense with a heavy dosage of Todd Gurley and Brian Hill. Gurley finished the drive with an impressive 35-yard rumble for a TD. They clearly had the formula to beating the Panthers defense, and executed it well.

Unfortunately, the team would go away from the run on the ensuing drive. Ryan would attempt 4 passes with just one handoff to Gurley, including a screen to Hayden Hurst that went for a loss and two incompletions. The next drive featured more balance (yay!), but a 2nd-and-6 sack fumble by Brian Burns would derail it completely (oh no). Then, with 2:30 to go in the half, the team would deliver a Dirk Koetter special: 5 straight short passes and a sack, taking a total of 50 seconds off the clock and punting the ball right back to the Panthers.

Carolina would go on to score a TD on that drive, burying the Falcons with a two TD deficit. That, of course, made it difficult to properly execute a run-heavy strategy on offense. Still, Atlanta managed two successful FG drives with a balanced approach after halftime, cutting the deficit to 7 early in the 4th quarter. A third, run-heavy drive had the Falcons rolling downfield, all the way to the Panthers 5-yard line. Then, a Matt Ryan interception would end the drive without points.

All in all, Koetter could’ve called a more run-heavy approach—particularly on a few drives in the first half. Ultimately though, the Falcons were hurt most by big errors: a huge 2nd down sack fumble and a bad INT in the endzone. Although those were technically player execution errors, I still blame Koetter for much of this offense’s recent malaise.

The route combinations on that crucial 3rd down pick were high school-level vanilla. Koetter is simply not helping Ryan or his receivers create separation with his concepts. It’s pretty standard “line up and beat your man” stuff, which is not good enough in today’s NFL. There’s a distinct lack of rub routes, creative passing concepts, and pre-snap motion—all staples of a Shanahan-style offense—in Koetter’s playbook.

Koetter has finally coaxed a quality performance out of the run game, but ultimately squandered it with poor overall playcalling and his own unique brand of vanilla route combinations and poor decision-making in key situations. There is more blame to go around here—Ryan’s placement on that Gage throw was bad—but at the end of the day, it was Koetter whose play design made Gage the only realistic target on that throw.

Even if the run game continues playing at this level, I don’t have much faith in Koetter to maximize what this offense can do on any given Sunday. And with one of the NFL’s worst defenses on the other side of the ball, that means a lot of losing remains ahead for the 2020 incarnation of the Falcons.