The Atlanta Falcons’ rushing attack has been critical to their offensive success thus far in 2022, and it will be tested against defensive tackle Vita Vea and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5.
The Falcons sport the fourth-ranked unit in the NFL in terms of rushing yards through four games, and they face a Bucs run defense that currently ranks 12th in yards allowed. But Tampa Bay looks much more vulnerable coming off a Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that saw the latter gain 189 yards on the ground.
The last time the Falcons and Bucs squared off in 2021, the Falcons put up 121 rushing yards, their fourth-highest team total of that season. On the surface, it would appear the Falcons have had previous success running against the Bucs, increasing their odds to repeat it. However, it should be noted that more than half of those yards (63 to be exact) came on the team’s first three runs on their opening drive, 46 coming from Cordarrelle Patterson before culminating in a 17-yard touchdown run by Mike Davis. Thereafter, the Falcons running game mostly struggled with only 58 yards on 20 carries for an average of fewer than three yards per carry. If the Falcons stand a chance of upsetting the Bucs this weekend, they will have to be able to maintain consistency on the ground through all four quarters.
After all, the Bucs' offense has averaged over 38 points in their four consecutive wins against the Falcons dating back to quarterback Tom Brady’s arrival in 2020. While the Falcons’ defense has finished strongly in their two most recent wins, no one should expect that to extend to a full four quarters. Thus, it’s critical that the Falcons' offense borrow from last week’s game plan and do some of the heavy lifting by controlling possession and keeping Tampa’s offense sidelined. And of course, the Falcons' run game figures greatly into that strategy.
Part of the Bucs’ previous struggles to contain the Chiefs’ ground game was due to the absence of defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who is battling a foot injury. That same injury has knocked him out of this coming Sunday’s game as well, which of course bodes well for the Falcons.
Yet the most critical matchup on Sunday will be between Falcons center Drew Dalman and Bucs nose tackle Vita Vea. The latter is a 350-pound behemoth who has routinely pushed around multiple Falcons interior offensive linemen since entering the NFL four years ago. Dalman is just another one of Vea’s victims dating back to that 2021 matchup.
Dalman must overcome previous struggles vs. Bucs
In that game, the Falcons opted to alternate Dalman and Matt Hennessy at center. It resulted in a poor overall performance for Dalman, which included a botched snap at the goal line that proved costly. The Falcons understandably chose to stop platooning their centers thereafter.
Snapping issues have continued to plague Dalman and the Falcons at the outset of 2022. But outside that, one only has to look at the evidence of this year’s much-improved run game to see that Dalman appears to be an upgrade over Hennessy.
Unfortunately, Vea represents a formidable challenge, having tallied two sacks and two tackles for loss in the Falcons and Bucs' last meeting. While the absence of Hicks will certainly make things easier for the Falcons' guards, Vea can still have a significant impact if he can control his matchup against the center.
Falcons’ blocking scheme is key to rushing success
Dalman and the rest of the Falcons' interior line will be tasked with containing Vea to help control the line of scrimmage and create holes for the team’s reserve running backs, now that Patterson is out for at least a month. Tyler Allgeier, Caleb Huntley, and Avery Williams all looked very impressive last week against the Cleveland Browns, combining for 164 of the team’s 202 rushing yards. Included in that production was a 14-play sequence beginning in the third quarter where the Falcons handed the ball to one of those three backs on every snap and racked up 145 yards.
While I don’t want to diminish their accomplishments, that success had less to do with the backs’ abilities and more to do with all the space they had to run through. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons currently lead the league this year in yards before contact. That’s a testament to the guys up front. The outside zone scheme deployed by the Falcons is notorious for working regardless of who is getting the ball, in part due to the spacing it can create thanks to the blocking.
That trend will have to continue this week for Atlanta to thrive on the ground, and its potential to do so will hinge on the team’s ability to control a literally massive obstacle in the shape of Vea.
Do you expect Dalman and the rest of the Falcons' offensive line to pass that test? Or is Vea and the Buccaneers' front too formidable?