The Atlanta Falcons' running game was a critical part of their success in their earlier win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7. Now, as they face them again in Week 14, the ground game could matter less, especially with right tackle Kaleb McGary set to miss Sunday’s game. That absence could force the Falcons to rely more on quarterback Desmond Ridder and their passing attack as the offensive engine that carries them to victory.
Since the Falcons ran for 156 yards the first time against the Bucs without Bijan Robinson contributing, leaning on that run game now with Robinson in the lineup would be the key to victory. But the addition of Robinson may not be enough to offset the absence of McGary. McGary’s replacement at right tackle in Storm Norton is a big step back as a run blocker.
That was fully on display at the end of last week’s win against the New York Jets. With roughly seven minutes to go, the Falcons had a three-and-out on a series trying to run out the clock on three consecutive runs to the right side. And on all three plays, Norton whiffed on his assignment.
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith wants balance in his rushing attack. The Falcons overall this year have run the ball 109 times to the left side versus 112 times to the right side according to Pro Football Focus. But despite that balance, the strength of the Falcons' run game has been the right side, where McGary’s physicality and right guard Chris Lindstrom’s athleticism accentuate one another. On right-side runs the Falcons average 4.9 yards per carry in contrast to the 4.3 yards per carry they average on runs to the left. In short-yardage situations, the Falcons show a less balanced attack since they run to the right side at a rate about 46 percent higher than runs to the left.
In their previous matchup against the Bucs, the Falcons had the bulk of their rushing success running to the outside. On 14 carries designated as outside runs (with their running direction behind behind the tackle or outside the tackle), the Falcons averaged 4.8 yards per carry. On their 18 other carries that were not quarterback runs, they averaged 3.6 yards per carry.
Will they be able to repeat that success without McGary in the lineup? Time will tell, but I don’t think the Falcons should abandon the run in their game plan. But should they struggle to establish it early against Tampa Bay, they need their passing game to pick up any slack.
Yet, McGary’s absence isn’t the only one that is expected on Sunday. The Falcons could be down several starters on defense as well. This puts even more pressure on the team’s passing attack to carry the load since keeping a lid on the Bucs offense will be a taller order this week. The offense may be forced to win a game that more closely resembles a shootout, and a run-heavy approach usually doesn’t help in those games.
This all puts pressure on Ridder to be the driving force or engine behind the Falcons' offensive success. Fortunately, Ridder had one of his better games this season in their last meeting against the Bucs. But of course, that comes with the caveat that you have to look just at his passing and ignore the three fumbles he had in that last meeting.
Hopefully, Ridder’s turnover issues are a thing of the past since he’s coming off his first start since the season-opener without a turnover. Not only will he need to have another game where he doesn’t give the ball away, but his arm will need to do more heavy lifting to power the Falcons offense.
Ridder’s ability to accomplish both of these tasks will not only further the Falcons' playoff potential this year, but possibly his future as the starting quarterback beyond this season. While many outside Atlanta have already declared that Ridder isn’t the answer for the Falcons at quarterback beyond this year, the people inside the buildings in Flowery Branch haven’t yet made up their minds.
Ridder’s performance down the stretch will go a long way to answer any lingering questions or doubts about his future beyond this season. Should he lead the Falcons to another win over the Bucs while simultaneously being the offense’s engine, it may be more informative about his future than any of the Falcons’ previous 12 games combined.
Do you think the Falcons should let Ridder cook this weekend versus the Bucs, and will it work well if they do?