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Will Ito Smith have a real role down the stretch?

Ito’s quality game against the Raiders may or may not augur bigger things ahead.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Ito Smith’s career in Atlanta has been marked by many roadblocks. As a fourth round pick in 2018, Ito joined a team with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman already entrenched, but was able to take advantage of injuries at the position to put together nearly 500 combined yards and 4 touchdowns in his rookie season. In 2019, he was sparingly used and picked up multiple concussions that knocked him out for the year, seemingly putting his future with the team in doubt.

Indeed, Ito’s lack of a role was a quiet but consistently befuddling issue this year. He was inactive once and otherwise barely played, watching Todd Gurley and Brian Hill increasingly get bogged down as runners and get virtually no targets in the passing game. It took an injury to Gurley to open up an opportunity for him against the Raiders, but he arrived with a bang, picking up 65 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

Given that Ito is probably the most capable pass-catching back on the roster, his lack of involvement to this point has been pretty puzzling. In a healthy passing attack firing on all cylinders, running back targets are generally less valuable than targets to receivers and tight ends, given that they frequently average far less yardage and tend to be less successful overall. The Falcons, however, do not have a healthy passing attack firing on all cylinders, and slow-developing plays where Ryan doesn’t appear to have a clear checkdown to a back to pick up some yardage has been a problem this year. Ryan has thrown just 68 balls to backs, or 16% of all his targets, and just 24 of those have gone to the team’s lead back Gurley.

Smith is the most capable back on the roster if the Falcons want to change that, which feels like a smart move against what figures to once again be a relentless Saints pass rush. Given that he’s also a strong runner on his best days, his lack of blocking acumen is the chief thing holding him back from a larger role, but if Gurley’s out it feels like there’s no way the Falcons can park him against New Orleans. It also feels like with Hill once again putting together a vaguely disappointing effort when given an opportunity to serve as the feature back and with Gurley seemingly wearing down in recent weeks, Smith’s a prime candidate to get more involvement the rest of the way, even if Dirk Koetter notably would not commit to getting him more involved.

Everybody likes to get into what role everybody is going to play. There’s one football to go around all these guys. Whoever we don’t get the ball to, you guys are going to ask me why he didn’t.

Ito has played a lot of football for the Falcons in his time here. He is a really good receiver out of the backfield and he showed yesterday what kind of runner he can be. A lot of it will be depend on what’s the situation with Todd Gurley coming back and that’s the kind of stuff we will sort out during the week.

My hunch is that this will sort itself out in a way that leads to Ito Smith becoming a more prominent part of the offense down the stretch. Gurley’s status is extremely in doubt and his effectiveness has been steadily waning in a way that makes his health a concern, as he averaged 4.96 yards per carry in the first five games and just 2.72 over his last five games. Hill has been more effective overall but failed to knock anyone’s socks off against the Raiders and feels more like a solid all-around complement, which means he’ll have a significant role no matter what but doesn’t figure to get 75-100% of the running back touches in any game the rest of the way. Ito can step into that situation and chip in, and for a team that may not have Julio Jones and needs to figure out a way to get the ball out more quickly, he could provide a short-term lift.

Given that Ito is the only semi-proven back on the roster who will be under contract in 2021, anything he does down the stretch can only help him carve out a role under what is virtually certain to be a new offensive staff next year. For a Falcons team trying to get a sputtering offense in gear, he’s unlikely to be transformative in a larger role but seems very likely to be a needed spark. I’m hopeful we’ll see more of him against the Saints.