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Should we believe Dirk Koetter’s ground game will improve in 2020?

The 2013 to 2014 transition suggests better personnel, not better scheming, is the only way forward.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

If I had to guess what the Falcons will do at running back this offseason, cutting Devonta Freeman, drafting a potential feature back, and adding a free agent all feel like safe guesses. I think you’ll have a rookie, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison, and a rotational guy when all is said and done, because Dirk Koetter loves four backs.

The question is whether that will represent an upgrade over what the Falcons already have, and perhaps more importantly, what Koetter will manage to do with it. It’s worth looking back at how the transition from 2013 to 2014 went, as tiny a sample as that is, because there is some situational overlap between what we’re likely to see with 2019-2020.

There are no exact comparisons to be had here, given that the Falcons seem likely to switch out their feature back this offseason and they didn’t from 2013 to 2014. Still, Koetter went from an unproductive 2013 with a nightmarish offensive line situation to 2014 with a rookie in the fold, mostly the same cast of characters, and at least a moderately improved offensive line. The Falcons are going to be expected to go into 2020 with a couple of new faces, a better line, and the same coordinator.

So how did he fare when all was said and done?

2013: 321 attempts, 1,247 yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 3.9 yards per attempt, 64 first downs

In Koetter’s defense, the Falcons stood no chance of doing anything useful on the ground in 2013, given that injury and poor personnel choices caught up with them in such a profound way. The 2019 line looks downright gifted compared to the group, but there was not a lot of daylight between the stats put up by those respective ground games.

The Falcons ground game was also troublingly old, which we have to remember is something that Koetter himself would’ve been involved in creating. Steven Jackson was 30, Jason Snelling was 30, and Antone Smith was 28, making 23-year-old Jacquizz Rodgers the youngest player there by a wide margin.

They fixed that the next year a little bit by adding Devonta Freeman in the draft, but if you’re stumping against the Falcons getting a veteran back...remember who’s at the helm here. Carlos Hyde, here we come.

2014: 372 attempts, 1,498 yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 4.0 yards per attempt, 75 first downs

This year looks a bit better on paper, and it was. What changed?

The short answer is: Not Koetter’s approach. In 2014 the Falcons ran 51% of their run plays on 1st and 10, compared to 53% in 2013, and their down and distance numbers elsewhere line up almost eerily well. The only real difference is that the Falcons ran more and had more success doing so, with the latter likely begetting the former. The only difference was that those plays were more successful, thanks almost entirely to better blocking up front than the Falcons could manage with their ragtag group of 2013 players.

The only real sour note? The Falcons were inexplicably worse in short yardage situations on 3rd and 4th downs, possibly because noted bulldozer Big Snell was gone.

Ultimately, though, the difference between the two years is pretty slight once you account for the gap in carries. To really get better results, the Falcons will likely need to significantly improve both the running back talent and get much more out of their offensive line, with that second one looming as the most important factor.

The upshot is that Koetter’s fortunes with the ground game will depend entirely on personnel. He’s not going to make major changes to the way he deploys his personnel, but if the Falcons add a capable young back and plug the hole at left guard, chances are this ground game will both run more and be at least moderately more successful at doing so.

It’d still be nice if the Falcons had a better coordinator running this ground game, but failing that, at least we have some small reason to think there’ll be improvement in the offing.