The Falcons have changed their offense in some very significant ways this offseason, and chances are you’re aware of that unless you’re waking up from a four month nap. Those changes are likely to mean a new-look group with some changes in philosophy, and one of the most commented upon shifts concerns how much this team is going to run in 2022.
The run/pass split in Atlanta traditionally leaned heavily toward the pass in the Matt Ryan era, a reflection of a high-flying passing attack (or at least a would-be one) with brief stretches of terrific ground games in the Michael Turner days and in Kyle Shanahan’s tenure. The last time the Falcons ran the ball more often than they passed was way back in 2008, Michael Turner’s utterly dominant breakout season and Ryan’s rookie year, and they’ve never gotten all that close to an even split in the past decade. This is what it’s looked like since 2015, and I didn’t bother going back further because 2012-2014 was actually the pass-heavy offense you remember from the best and worst of Dirk Koetter’s first stint in Atlanta.
The numbers below show you the percentages of passing and rushing plays for a given season, as well as where the rushing attempts ranked leaguewide for Atlanta.
2021: 59.3% passing, 40.7% rushing (25th)
2020: 60.6% passing, 39.4% rushing (25th)
2019: 65.4% passing, 34.6% rushing (32nd)
2018: 63.7% passing, 36.3% rushing (30th)
2017: 55.2% passing, 44.8% rushing (14th)
2016: 56% passing, 44% rushing (9th)
2015: 59.7% passing, 40.3% rushing (19th)
It’s worth noting that the 2016-to-2017 results being so similar should give you a good indication of just how pointless it is to try to draw sweeping conclusions about rushing attempts being a marker of effectiveness, because they’re certainly not. What is noteworthy is that the Falcons have been bad at rushing the football for a while now and thus have been unable to achieve the kind of balance Arthur Smith and company are clearly looking for.
The last time Atlanta had a truly credible, effective ground game was in 2017, and the team leaned heavily on it that year in an off year for the passing game under Steve Sarkisian. You can see that Arthur Smith and company ran the ball at the highest rate the team had attempted in five years when they took over in 2021, but you get the sense they had to curb their run-first desires because the team largely couldn’t do it effectively and were often playing from behind.
Why do I think that’s what they wanted to do? Because that’s what Arthur Smith’s great offenses in Tennessee did, with a 1.07 run/pass rate in 2020 and a .99 one in 2019. The “he had Derrick Henry” response that’s forming on your lips right now is a fair one, but it’s clearly a philosophy for Smith, whose Titans have prioritized the run in recent years alongside effective offenses like the Saints, 49ers, Colts and Browns. The team did try to run the ball at the highest rate we’d seen from a Falcons team since 2017, even though only Cordarrelle Patterson really did so successfully at any point, and even Matt Ryan had his highest number of rushing attempts since 2010 last year.
With another year of tweaked personnel and Ryan headed to Indianapolis, not to mention multiple additions to the running back room along with Cordarrelle Patterson’s return, it’s fair to assume a renewed focus on an effective ground game will be a huge priority. That’s particularly true with the changeover to Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder, who will likely run more often than Ryan and pass less often as the team focuses on finding a more efficient passing attack with better weapons at their disposal.
So what will that balance look like? It would be surprising to me, then, if they don’t exceed the 44% rush play rate from 2016, the last time they had both an efficient passing attack and effective ground game. It would not be shocking to see something very close to a 50/50 split, given the way the roster is currently constructed. You should obviously not expect the results to look quite as good as they did during the greatest offensive season in franchise history, but unless the offensive line is garbage, this team is going to try to run the ball more frequently and successfully than they did a year ago. With Mariota and Ridder also likely to run more often than Ryan did thanks to their plus mobility—Mariota had at least 60 rushing attempts in three of his four years as a full-time starter, where Ryan had 40 a year ago—it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this team isn’t in the top half of the league in attempts.
You don’t need to run and pass at a 50/50 split to be an effective offense, and in the year of our Football Lords 2022, if you’re getting close to that you either have one of the league’s most elite rushing offenses or your passing attack stinks. Atlanta’s more likely to be suffering from the latter than celebrating the former in 2021, but it’ll be surprising if they’re not rushing the ball nearly as often as they’re passing this season. Whether that’s successful or not depends on the state of this line and the fortunes of new additions like Tyler Allgeier, but there’s pretty much nowhere to go but up.