From signing veteran running backs to using mid and late-round picks, the Falcons have been persistent in trying to rebuild their ground game following Devonta Freeman’s decline and Tevin Coleman’s departure. One of the true driving forces behind their playoff teams in 2016 and 2017 became a sluggish afterthought in recent years. The offensive line woes certainly significantly affected their ability to run the ball efficiently. Steve Sarkisian and Dirk Koetter didn’t do anything to compensate for the drop in talent level with one-dimensional, predictable play-calling.
For all those issues surrounding the running game, it does have to be said the talent out of the backfield wasn’t good enough. The front office’s decision to sign Todd Gurley will be remembered as more of a push to sell tickets than make the offense better equipped to regain their status as one of the most prolific units in the league.
As well as Mike Davis played at times in 2020, a half-season of impressive performances for a mainly contributing back over the course of his career shouldn’t have resulted in expecting him to be a workhorse back. Draft picks like Brian Hill, Ito Smith, and Qadree Ollison showed promise during various stages of their respective stints in Atlanta. None of them were capable of becoming a consistent playmaker.
After years of trying to have a workhorse back or put together a dynamic tandem like Freeman and Coleman were for two years, Arthur Smith has put together an effective group of four running backs who each have their specific skillsets, ones that have helped to create one of the most productive ground games in the league.
Setting the right infrastructure comes first
Before praising the running backs, it must be said Smith has done a tremendous job of putting the pieces together to give the running backs more space to operate and holes to be capitalized on. It was a mess last season with Jalen Mayfield completely overwhelmed at left guard, Matt Hennessey struggling to stay on his feet at center, and Kaleb McGary consistently getting beat or in the wrong position. While Drew Dalman isn’t much of an upgrade over Hennessey, the addition of Elijah Wilkenson to add some solidity in a problematic area at left guard. Taken along with McGary’s rapid improvement as a mauling run blocker, the coaching and personnel upgrades have done wonders for the unit.
With Chris Lindstrom’s ascendance as a top-tier right guard making outstanding blocks every week, the offensive line has made notable strides to help rejuvenate a previously sluggish, mostly non-existent running game. The other notable improvement comes from Smith’s personnel groupings and formation variance. His ability to integrate Parker Hesse as a significant part of the offense has proven to be a stroke of genius to elevate the running game. With Keith Smith having the best season of his career, the Falcons have multiple tone-setters that embrace taking on lead blocks against opposing linebackers and safeties.
Arthur Smith has been vocal about the importance of running the ball. Even when the team was unable to run for long portions of last season, he stressed how the team needed to find balance and establish a tough-minded identity. The right combination of better offensive line play and personnel usage across different formations paid off in creating a real belief in pounding defenses into submission. It also helps when the running backs can break tackles at will to go along with an explosive change-of-pace option.
The new wave
When Smith became the Falcons’ head coach, the immediate excitement was making the offense more balanced and productive again. His history with turning Tennessee into one of the most efficient offenses in the league will forever be cherished, especially when considering how good the AFC has been. While a player like Derrick Henry doesn’t exist in Atlanta or really anywhere else, the belief was the Falcons could transition into utilizing a power back that can punish fronts running downhill. Tyler Allgeier is the exact type of player who fits the bill.
After having a relatively solid rookie season till December, the fifth-round pick has been exceptional over the past few games. The elevation in his performances has been breathtaking to watch, from his ability to consistently gain yards after contact to showing growth in his patience to find the running lane to get into the open field. Per Football Focus, Allgeier has forced a whopping 14 missed tackles in the last two games. It has caused his his average total of yards after contact to rise to a very impressive 3.5 yards per carry. The power and decisiveness he runs with bring back fond memories of watching the great Michael Turner.
Allgeier has also grown in handling pass-blocking responsibilities and catching passes out of the backfield. From speaking with him last May, he was very passionate about wanting to prove he can be a complete back. To be constrained as a one-cut, two-down power back was something that he wouldn’t allow. His tremendous work ethic and desire to evolve have pushed him to the point where he may end up rushing for 1,000 yards in his rookie season. Considering the competition he has for carries, that would be an enormous feat.
Allgeier hasn’t been the only emerging player in the running back room. Before a season-ending Achilles injury, Caleb Huntley was arguably outplaying Allgeier at times during the season. Similar to the former BYU Cougar, Huntley has serious acceleration for a big power back. He hits the hole hard and possesses pop in his game. That was missing last year, as Davis’ power and vision weren’t enough to compensate for a lack of explosiveness. Huntley’s emergence from being the running back in the fourth quarter of preseason games to being hugely influential in victories over Cleveland and Carolina has made him a fan favorite in Atlanta.
In another unexpected emergence, Avery Williams has been another refreshing contributing player to the Falcons’ revival on the ground. A true change-of-pace back is always valuable to have on a team of grinding, punishing running backs. Williams’ elusiveness and blistering speed provide a necessary boost when the team looks to give the other running backs a break and make plays in the passing game. The transition from playing corner to running back can’t always be expected to be smooth, especially when handling returner duties. Williams has established himself as a true dual threat, capable of producing an explosive play at any time.
The people’s champ is still holding strong and setting the tone
Perhaps the most beloved player on the Falcons roster can’t be forgotten when analyzing the success of the running game. Cordarrelle Patterson remains a valuable player on the offense for his versatility, physical running style, and dynamic playmaking capabilities. While age will continue to be a talking point about his future, there’s no denying his value in the locker room and what he did last season in carrying the Falcons to some victories.
Although he is starting to take a reduced role, Patterson still possesses game-changing vision and elusiveness to turn minimal gains into explosive plays. There aren’t many players in the league that can evade tacklers and punishes defenders as he can. His ability to read the field and create off pure skill is remarkable. Remarkable is the best word to describe Patterson’s two years in Atlanta.
He is the tone-setter of all tone-setters. He is at the core of what is special about the organization. He makes players around him better and pushes the running backs to become better as players. The construction of the running game started with Patterson becoming one of the most lethal all-around playmakers in the league last season. With his extraordinary talent and charisma, he’s made a massive difference in providing the Falcons with a legitimate ground game again.
With three young instinctive backs and one of the most unique players to ever play the sport, the running game will be remembered proudly looking back at the Falcons’ 2022 season, along with being viewed as a vital element of their identity going forward in 2023.