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In search of their true offensive identity, the Falcons running game is starting to make progress

Arthur Smith has always been vocal about the importance of the running game. While it's been far from efficient, the Falcons are showing encouraging signs in turning his press conference wishes into game realities.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Building a sustainable, productive running game is normally extremely difficult for a team that isn’t expected to win many games. Between frequent breakdowns across the offensive line and not getting enough stops defensively, the Falcons haven’t been able to run the ball effectively for most of the season. Coping with a negative game script in several games certainly hasn’t helped either in Arthur Smith’s quest to bring his ground game success from Tennessee to Atlanta.

For all the success Cordarrelle Patterson has had, his production has come in flashes in different ways instead of steady yardage on the ground. There simply have not been many games where the Falcons have won in the trenches and opened up gaping holes for their unique running back rotation.

After taking a beating against the Patriots, it was clear they couldn’t depend on a diminished passing game anymore. Finding a genuine balance by running the ball was vital for them to get back on track as a competitive team. Led by the dynamic Patterson, they are slowly becoming more dangerous as a running team. The Falcons have gained over 120 rushing yards in the past two games, along with averaging 5.2 yards per carry on the ground. It started with a commanding showing against the Jaguars. The inclusion of Drew Dalman made a positive impact on the ground, as he was making impressive blocks at the second level to help spring Patterson into the open field. With Chris Lindstrom and Jake Matthews playing at their best, the offensive line set the tone like how Smith envisioned it or a change.

Attacking the champions where they are at their best

Facing the Super Bowl champions was always going to be a more daunting challenge. Only Baltimore is allowing fewer rushing yards per game than Tampa Bay. In the first meeting, Vita Vea and Ndaumokung Suh eviscerated the Falcons’ interior line. Trying to run power concepts on Tampa Bay’s stout front is likely always going to be a regrettable decision for opponents. If teams are going to attempt to muster up a running game against them, they’ll have to attack them on the outside with an athletic offensive line ready to get out in space and seal off defenders. That’s what the Falcons exactly did on the first drive.

The Falcons produced their first opening touchdown scoring drive of the season from back-to-back impressive runs attacking the outside. It was a long time coming for them, as the most unorthodox running back tandem in the league led the charge. After motioning Kyle Pitts to the right, they ran a toss to the left with Patterson. Jalen Mayfield and Kaleb McGary held their blocks down to help create space for Atlanta’s new favorite player to get loose into the secondary. Patterson had to do his fair share to evade multiple tacklers, but it was refreshing to see two of Atlanta’s most criticized offensive linemen make notable blocks on a 39-yard run.

Smith didn’t hesitate on the next play to run the ball again. Inserting Mike Davis into the fray hasn’t translated into much production this season. Despite the run blocking being consistently dreadful all season, Davis’ limited vision and inability to make sharp cuts have hindered the running game to an extent. Smith hasn’t lost belief in Davis’ abilities, which is why he still gets four to ten carries a game. The belief paid off here as Davis galloped into the end zone on a 17-yard run. Lindstrom and Matt Hennessey made outstanding seal blocks to provide a clear path for the Falcons’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. Mayfield guided Suh away from the ball long enough for the running play to materialize into a touchdown. Those two runs against a dominant front left everyone watching the game astonished. The Falcons are running the ball and producing explosive plays against one of the premier teams in the NFL, finally.

Progress has to translate into consistency

Unfortunately, the first quarter explosion didn’t translate into full-game production. Per Pro Football Focus, they gained 74 out of 121 rushing yards in the first quarter. Some of the issues can be attributed to the defense not being able to get stops and making the offense chase games through the air. Other issues can be from the inefficiency on first down and putting pressure on Matt Ryan to make throws in unfavorable situations. These are things out of their hands. What is in their hands starts with the offensive line. Heading into last Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, the Falcons entered the game as the fourth-worst team in yards per carry before contact at 0.93, according to Josh Kendall at The Athletic. That’s a troubling stat indicating how Patterson, Davis, Wayne Gallman, and Qadree Ollison aren’t able to find space and are being hit before they can make a cut or accelerate into the open field.

As Hennessey eloquently put it, a combination of accountability and optimism will be required for the team to finish the season strong and potentially sneak into the playoffs. While the passing game is an entirely different discussion, there is genuine hope that the past two games can be the launching pad Smith needs to build an identity. It’s well-documented how much he wants to run the ball. With Calvin Ridley potentially out for the rest of the season and Kyle Pitts struggling to handle being at the center of the opposing defense’s game plans, it’s imperative for Patterson and Davis to be at the heart of the offense’s production. That will help keep an overmatched defense off the field, take pressure off Ryan, and give their most electrifying playmaker (Patterson) the ball to be the special player he is.