clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Falcons running game returns to peak form provides edge over NFC South foes

As the Falcons move back into first place, they’ve solidified what everyone already knows. If they can overwhelm teams with their dynamic rushing attack like they did in 2022, they will put themselves in a prime position to win the division.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

When a team builds an effective identity, they start finding winning ways. That was the biggest highlight from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons’ season, where Arthur Smith’s offense had stretches of pounding opposing defenses into submission and making timely plays through the air to win games. They constructed a strong foundation of attacking defensive fronts with a mixture of run concepts that utilized the running back group’s powerful attributes and an athletic offensive line that could demolish units with the right side of their starting five.

That ideal plan hasn’t come to fruition often in 2023. It doesn’t entirely fall on an underperforming offensive line, but they’ve struggled in several games and have fallen short several times in short-yardage situations. The tight ends haven’t blocked particularly well. Given how disjointed the passing game is and how frequent the turnovers have been, there are plenty of factors that have determined why the running game hasn’t taken over many games this season. Coaching hasn’t helped matters either, especially with the perplexing usage of the most electrifying playmaker on the roster during periods of the season.

All the frustration of a three-game losing streak with an at-times underachieving rushing attack was wiped away in a must-win situation against their biggest rival. They rushed for 228 yards and completely owned the line of scrimmage for their best performance of the season. All three running backs averaged over five yards per carry, even with no play going longer than 17 yards. It was a sustained, punishing display across all four quarters where the Falcons set the tone of reverting to being the best version of themselves offensively.

Running Back Trio Finds Potential New Blueprint

Going into the season, it appeared that Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier were going to become the potential best running back duo in the league. From Allgeier breaking franchise rookie records to Robinson’s college pedigree, the vision of their version of thunder and lightning seemed crystal clear. At the same time, it was difficult to envision the people’s champion in Atlanta finding a role within the offense.

As exceptional as Cordarrelle Patterson has been over the past two seasons, his age and positioning on the roster as the third running back meant opportunities were going to be limited. That proved to be the case, even as the offense stumbled and Patterson was vocal about his frustration, even if he tried to make it clear that they weren’t pointed at the head coach.

Coming out of the bye week, it was a breath of fresh air watching all three running backs utilized effectively. Robinson was inserted back into the primary lead role after being oddly misused for most of October. He received five red zone snaps, which was certainly refreshing given how much the team has faltered in those crucial scoring situations.

It was critical for the rookie sensation to get more of the workload, as proven against the Cardinals. How Patterson and Allgeier took to their roles turned an inconsistent running game up several notches.

Having a tone-setting, high-energy player who can give an offense a major energy lift is a massive asset. When Patterson bursts through a lane and gets to the second level, something violent is bound to happen, with the Falcons gaining extra yards. The multi-dimensional weapon made his presence felt in a way that vies the offense more ferocity and variety to break open a disciplined Saints’ defense.

There were moments when Robinson was used as a decoy to take linebackers out of position to help give Patterson space to punish defensive backs on the way to earning hugely positive gains. The plan to use Patterson as a change-of-pace back proved to be highly effective in continuing to put intense pressure on the Saints’ front. They were being continuously tested, regardless of who ran out of the backfield.

That’s where the power of having Allgeier comes into play. The powerhouse back only had two carries before the fourth quarter. As the Saints began to wear down, Smith heavily featured him to pound them into submission like it was 2022 all over again. Allgeier’s ferocious running style as a human bowling ball who runs through contact consistently was exactly what the Falcons needed to take control in the fourth quarter.

Putting him in a closing role was an excellent move from the coaching staff in showing a sharp understanding of how to best use their personnel. While it can be argued this should have been done much sooner, it’s important to take into account the circumstances the coaching staff has faced.

Patterson entered the season injured and didn’t start receiving meaningful snaps until Week 6. Robinson had a stomach issue against Tampa Bay shortly after Patterson returned. As soon as all three players were healthy, the team started to unravel and struggled to play from in front. When they did, Smith bizarrely relied too much on Taylor Heinicke to manufacture scoring drives. It’s been infuriating for the team to not run the ball effectively and execute their primary strength. They know what they are capable of, especially when you consider how they started the season with two wins.

To get back in form by using Robinson as the all-world centerpiece, Patterson as the change of change-of-pace bulldozer, and Allgeier as the soul-crushing closer is something the Falcons could use going forward every week to get to the playoffs. It will also need the offensive line and its entire supporting cast to maintain the high level of blocking they showcased against New Orleans.

Blocking Is the Ultimate Difference Maker

As tantalizing as it is for the Falcons to have such a unique, devastating running back trio, their impact can’t be truly felt without solidified blocking up front. The offensive line has been overmatched at times this season, particularly in games against Detroit and Tennessee. It was alarming to see them incapable of getting a solid push up front and constantly seeing players on the ground as defensive linemen were swarming into the backfield.

Much like with most things in football, the inconsistent running game isn’t solely based on one unit not playing up to the standards they set last season. There are moments where all three tight ends have blown blocking assignments, especially Kyle Pitts against Arizona, where he was repeatedly blown up at the point of attack. At some point, they had to collectively improve to get this offense back on track as one of the more uniquely productive groups in the league.

They returned from the bye week with real purpose, as all five offensive linemen made their share of pivotal blocks. Whether they ran duo, inside zone, outside zone, or pin-pull concepts, the group worked in unison to create mouthwatering running lanes. Matthew Bergeron and Kaleb McGary had arguably their best performances of the season. The rookie left guard had an impressive reach block to give Robinson room to burst into the end zone for his first touchdown. McGary was creating consistent movement, pushing defensive linemen five yards back or away from the ball with authority.

The running game is most lethal when running behind McGary and Chris Lindstrom. Per Pro Football Focus, they have averaged between 4.0 to 6.3 yards per attempt towards running in the right direction this season, which is considerably better compared to running in a left direction. They averaged a whopping 6.3 to 9.0 yards per attempt when running in the right direction against the Saints.

The other primary aspect of their blocking excellence was the return of Parker Hesse. The unsung blocking hero made a significant difference last season by blocking in all sorts of roles, whether as an in-line tight end, in stack formations, or out of the backfield. What he brings as an extra blocker is incredibly valuable to an offense that loves operating out of heavier sets.

Inserting a healthy Hesse into the offense was crucial in overwhelming New Orleans’ front and creating space on the outside for Robinson to accelerate into and turn the corner to produce those explosive running plays. Between his blocking capabilities and positional versatility in giving the offense more formation flexibility, Hesse will be counted on to keep defenses guessing and win those critical battles at the point of attack. It’s unlikely he winds up relegated to the practice squad for very long.

After the game, players were alluding to the offensive line’s sense of urgency. David Onyemata knew that they were capable of dominating like they did for an entire game. Last Wednesday’s practice felt like a heavyweight fight with the offensive line ready to go to battle, according to Smith. They are built on outmaneuvering teams with their athleticism, but also being powerful enough to smash them with combo blocks. A center like Drew Dalman can stretch horizontally to make outstanding open field blocks, while McGary will be the nasty physical mauler to take edge defenders for a ride away from the play.

The combination of quick bursts off the line of scrimmage and sheer power in making different types of blocks makes this a unit capable of terrorizing defenses. With Hesse healthy and MyCole Pruitt having one of his better games as a blocker, the pieces are finally coming together for a running game that is simply too talented not to be more efficient. Being fifth in the league in rushing yards per game is a testament to their terrific talent and coaching persistence. Now, it’s a matter of executing consistently to avoid unfavorable third and longs and convert in the red zone.

Looking Ahead

If the Falcons want to find genuine consistency and prove themselves to be a class above the rest in the NFC South, the running game will need to produce at a high level. No team in the division possesses the ability to take over games in one key area like Arthur Smith’s team can do on the ground.

With looming challenges against the Jets and Bucs, the offense knows it will have to be organized and technically sound on every snap against two ferocious fronts. While both teams are severely flawed, the defenses command respect within their respective personnel and coaching staffs. The Falcons have an edge not many teams can claim to have on the ground. How they use what they showcased on Sunday will be one of the deciding factors in whether they can turn their divisional success into a playoff push.