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Can the Falcons unlock their Pony personnel potential?

By adding Bijan Robinson to an already versatile backfield, the Falcons are set up nicely for a new wrinkle

Atlanta Falcons v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

In the leadup to each NFL season, fans and media members love to speculate on how teams will change and utilize the newest members of their respective organizations. The Falcons are undoubtedly one of those teams, and Bijan Robinson gives Atlanta a unique weapon to deploy.

After leading the league in rushing attempts last year (559) and finishing third in yards per game (159.9) and fourth in yards per play (4.9), the Falcons are seemingly doubling down on making their ground game the focal point of the offense. With Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson already in place, this offense boasts a lot of talent at the running back position.

Now, the question is: How will Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone use that talent? Pony personnel is football shorthand for having two running backs on the field at the same time, and it’s not a novel idea. In fact, just a quick Google search will uncover a few pieces from just last year that note teams like the Cowboys and Packers were looking to tap into their unique backfields in this way.

However, those results turned out mixed. According to Dan Pizzuta of Sharp Football Analysis, teams averaged -0.09 EPA per play on 808 plays out of two-back sets during the 2021 season. That number includes pass plays, which is where the art of pony personnel really gets interesting.

The league is becoming defined by teams’ ability to create matchup advantages, and the Falcons are a team focused on winning in this area. Running back versatility is a great way to accomplish this goal, especially if a team has a player like Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara, who are adept receivers and function out of the slot very well.

Atlanta hopes to utilize Robinson in much the same way.

Kansas v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

“His background, playing in the slot, was another big piece of it,” Smith said after the draft. “That’s intriguing. We feel he is an explosive weapon, a home run hitter however he gets the football in his hands.”

To get the most out of Robinson as a receiver, the Falcons will again have to buck recent NFL history. In Pizzuta’s piece, he references data from TruMedia, which notes that nearly 40 percent of passes out of two-back sets in 2021 were behind the line of scrimmage. This greatly limits a team’s efficiency, as these types of passes are generally less effective.

The Falcons ranked seventh in EPA (expected points added) per play on first downs last season. Interestingly enough, they were No. 1 in EPA per dropback on first down, which highlights how effective Atlanta’s balanced approach can be at keeping teams guessing. Adding Robinson into that mix should only help this team continue to wrong-foot defenses.

Last season, teams like the Packers and Cowboys mostly utilized a split-back look out of shotgun as a way to deploy their two running backs. This prevented defenses from keying on a side of the field that the offense was most likely to run towards, which benefits an offensive line greatly.

But a two-back approach isn’t necessarily new for Atlanta. After all, Patterson has been the Swiss-army-knife running back for this offense the last two years. His unique skillset compares favorably to Robinson, so we have somewhat of an idea for how the Falcons may deploy their rookie, and they aren’t always reliant on these split sets with two backs on the field.

A primary benefit of versatile offenses is that it can manipulate defensive personnel. Once a play concludes, defenses will immediately seek to identify the number of running backs and tight ends on the field. Historically, this has been an indicator of whether a pass or a run is expected, and the defense will adjust its personnel to account for that expectation.

However, Atlanta has proven adept at using this tell against defenses. By employing these “positionless” players like Kyle Pitts, Patterson and now Robinson, the Falcons can enter the huddle with two running backs and two tight ends, which should be a five-alarm signal that a run is coming, and still have options to throw the ball all over the field.

That we’ve seen this from the Falcons before is a good sign that Smith and his staff will find a myriad of ways to use Robinson at the same time as Allgeier and/or Patterson. There’s also precedent that the Falcons will use their backs to probe coverages downfield. Pizzuta explains in his piece that only 25 of the 195 targets directed towards running backs out of pony personnel in 2021, league-wide, were five or more yards downfield. Of those 25, Patterson received 11.

According to nfelo, Atlanta utilized some version of pony personnel on 33 percent of its plays last season. That rate ranked fourth behind only the Ravens, Dolphins and 49ers. Unlike those other teams, however, the Falcons mixed together their personnel packages so that none truly dominated.

It was also a different type of two-back look than we will likely see from Atlanta in 2023. A good chunk of that percentage involved fullback Keith Smith, who operated in a similar utility role to players like Parker Hesse or MyCole Pruitt. With Robinson in the mix, the Falcons’ two-back approach should become more explosive.

Smith’s offense has been defined by its manipulation of personnel to gain real-time advantages once the ball is snapped. In Robinson, he has another knight on the chessboard who is capable of moving in ways few others can.

If there’s anyone who can orchestrate a multiple-back offense and transcend what’s come before, it might the man right here in Atlanta.