The Falcons ground game has, to the surprise of basically no one, not been a huge stretch in 2020. Todd Gurley’s addition has given the Falcons a potent short yardage weapon but has not had an effective week since the first game against the Panthers, a combination of factors that might include his arthritic knee and certainly includes the team’s awful down and distance run habits and scheming.
This weekend would have figured to be more of the same, given the reasonably stout Raiders run defense, but unfortunately Gurley won’t get his chance to surprise us because he’s out Sunday. That leaves Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison to carry the load against Las Vegas, and it’s a particularly large opportunity for Hill.
Though he’s been around since 2017 off and on—and that feels like forever ago—Hill is still just 25 years old. He has just 169 career regular season carries, meaning he’ll head into free agency seeking a contract on pretty fresh legs. At worst, he should be able to snag the kind of backup role he’s carved out in Atlanta, but this rare opportunity to be the unquestioned starter for a game is also his opportunity to make a strong case for a larger role either here or elsewhere.
Hill has unquestionably been the more efficient than Gurley in the same spots, with 35 attempts for 150 yards (4.3 yards per pop) versus Gurley’s 83 attempts for 264 yards (3.2 yards per pop) on the 1st and 10s that Dirk Koetter loves. That has come in limited opportunities, but Hill has been just as large a part of the passing game as Gurley (both have 16 receptions; Gurley has 82 yards and Hill has 111) and has grown over the last couple of years as a runner, receiver, and blocker. He is not close to being Gurley’s equal as a blocker or as a short yardage/goal line option, however, which you probably didn’t need me to tell you.
All this suggests that Hill can have a solid game as the primary option, though I’m hopeful we’ll actually get a look at the lightly-used Ito Smith (still the team’s best receiving option out of the backfield) and Ollison (who we still haven’t seen much of at all). He’s drawing a Raiders squad that is a little better than middle-of-the-pack in yards allowed, though they’ve allowed the second-most rushing touchdowns. Especially if Julio is out, Hill might have more success as a receiving option out of the backfield, something this team has been sorely lacking after frequently utilizing Devonta Freeman a year ago.
We’ll see what Hill can do with his opportunity, and what it leads to for him this offseason. I still would not be surprised if he was back in Atlanta as a stopgap lead option in 2021, but performing well against Las Vegas in a lead role tomorrow would go a long way toward helping his case for that.