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Falcons need to utilize Hayden Hurst and Todd Gurley more in the passing game with injuries piling up

Whether they’re not getting open or the team simply isn’t prioritizing targeting them matters less than fixing it.

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Let’s start with a statistic. Matt Ryan has thrown the ball 126 times in three games thus far in 2020. Out of all those throws, nearly half (59) have gone to Calvin Ridley (35) and Russell Gage (24). Julio Jones has scooped up another 16 to bring that total to 76, leaving just 50 targets left over for the rest of the offense.

That’s what you do when you have three great receivers, of course, and no one should ask Matt Ryan to de-prioritize his best targets. The problem is that two of those targets may not be available in Week 4 against the Packers, and the limitations of straining to target the one remaining player showed in Week 3 against the Bears.

Here’s another stat: Hayden Hurst, the player the team gave up a 2nd round pick to acquire this offseason, has 9 catches on 16 targets in three games. He’s been hugely productive with those receptions, putting up 111 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he’s only touching the ball three times per game. Todd Gurley, the $5 million free agent acquisition at running back with 300 targets in 5 seasons when he was with the Rams, has just 7 targets and 3 catches for 3 yards through three weeks. Nominal fourth receiver Christian Blake doesn’t even have one.

Atlanta’s heavy reliance on its stars has been an issue at times in the past, and it’s arguably an issue right now. Ryan’s inability or unwillingness to find the likes of Hurst and Gurley, whether that’s caused by them not getting open or Ryan not getting to them in his progressions, has led to some clearly forced throws to Ridley, Gage, and Julio that have in turn led to picks and missed connections. The Falcons used a lot of resources in the offseason getting Hurst and Gurley into this offense, and the lack of opportunities for both (and particularly Gurley) has been pretty baffling.

Let’s start with Hurst. Atlanta’s done a stellar job of getting him into space at times, but he’s got some weird target splits going on. Atlanta’s targeted him 6 times in the first quarter and 5 times in the fourth quarter, but just 5 times combined in the second and third quarters. That’s relevant because injury meant Atlanta was leaning heavily on unproven receivers Sunday against the Bears in particular, a spot where Hurst might’ve been expected to be a factor. The majority of his yards and receptions thus far have come on 1st down and long, as well, meaning the team is making fine use of his speed but is not giving him much in the way of opportunities to catch the ball short and make a play with it. That one-dimensional usage is curious for a player who has yet to record a drop in the NFL and has gotten some legitimately favorable matchups.

Gurley’s targets and production in the passing game dropped off considerably in 2019, but it’s not like he’s magically forgotten how to catch and run with the football. There’s no harm in the Falcons not throwing to Gurley a lot when they’re fully healthy, given that running back targets are generally less productive than wide receiver targets, but Gurley is much more likely to pick up 6+ yards on a catch than a run and the Falcons are very far from fully healthy right now. I’m more concerned about getting Hurst involved, but Gurley’s here to do more than just run anyways, and his fortunes in that regard are heavily dependent on the blocking in front of him and Koetter’s whims.

It was encouraging to see Olamide Zaccheaus and Brandon Powell play pretty well when they had to step into the game against the Bears, and I’d fully expect Ryan to utilize both if he’s comfortable with them. The Falcons have plenty of weapons to choose from, however, and if the injury picture remains the way it is right now, it’ll be past time to get Gurley and Hurst more involved in the passing game.