In 2022, the Atlanta Falcons ran the ball on 55.29% of their plays, exceeded only by the Chicago Bears, who rushed at a 56.19% clip. Those squads were joined by just the Baltimore Ravens as the only three teams to run the ball more often than they passed it over the course of the season.
The Falcons and Bears ran the ball for a higher percentage of plays than the NFL has seen since the 2009 New York Jets had a 59.22% run percentage.
In between that time period of 13 seasons post-2009, there has been an average of 1.6 teams per season (21 total) to run the ball more often than they passed it over the course of a full season. Never have there been more than three teams to achieve this feat together since ‘09, and we had instances in 2016, 2018 and 2021 where all 32 teams threw the ball more often than they ran it.
Conversely, since 2009 there have been an average of 11.6 teams per season (151 total) to reach a threshold of at least 60% of plays being a pass attempt. All of this is a long winded way of telling you that the NFL has moved away from the rushing philosophy of yesteryear and has leaned heavily into airing the ball out.
(Arthur Smith at one point in a Week 4 victory vs. the Cleveland Browns: “Guys here’s what we’re doing. We’re gonna run the *bleeping bleep* out of this football... Get ready to run the ball” — the Falcons proceeded to run the ball 14 straight times in the second half).
There seems to be at least one team poised to be the flag bearer of disruption, however. The Atlanta Falcons, led by head coach Arthur Smith, have decided to go against the grain and zag while everyone else seems to be zigging. While the rest of the league still seems bought into the aerial revolution, Smith and the Falcons are thinking about a ground and pound renaissance.
Other teams try to keep up with the passing evolution
Just as an example of what seems to be the mindset of the rest of the league, let’s look at the offseason moves the Bears and the Ravens — the other two teams who ran the ball more than 50% of the time in 2022 — have made thus far.
Chicago traded back from the Number 1 overall pick in the draft, with star wide receiver DJ Moore being the prized acquisition in that move. With the 10th pick in the draft, they selected offensive tackle Darnell Wright, whose primary strengths come in pass protection (80.2 PFF pass blocking grade vs. 65.0 run blocking grade last season at Tennessee). They ended up drafting talented receiver Tyler Scott on Day 3, as well. And this is after they had already acquired wide receiver Chase Claypool at last year’s trade deadline.
The Ravens, meanwhile, made headlines for the ongoing Lamar Jackson saga before coming to terms with the quarterback on a lucrative extension. They brought Todd Monken in to be their new offensive coordinator after he helped lead the Georgia Bulldogs to two consecutive national titles. In his time as an OC in the NFL (2016-2018 with Tampa Bay and 2019 with Cleveland), Monken’s teams passed the ball at the following rates: 57.50%, 62.63%, 63.13%, 59.61%. I understand that in Tampa part of this was due to personnel, but in Cleveland he still dialed up the pass at nearly a 60% clip even with the run game being the strength of that team. Remember, Nick Chubb had 1,494 rushing yards in a Pro Bowl season, while Baker Mayfield failed to tally 4,000 passing yards.
As for player movement, the Ravens signed receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor in free agency and then further bolstered the WR room with a first round selection of Boston College’s Zay Flowers, who was their only non-defensive selection before round 6.
Even the only non-Atlanta teams in 2022 that focused on an identity of running the ball seem poised to pass the ball more often than they have in the past, aiming to keep up with that aerial evolution the NFL continues to undergo.
Don’t just take my word for it though, here is Ravens QB Lamar Jackson implying that his goal is to shatter the single season passing record this upcoming season.
Update: Lamar Jackson says he wants to throw for "6,000 yards" next season.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) May 4, 2023
"We've got the guys to do it." pic.twitter.com/ZGP7n4MHuu
Now, let’s take a closer look at what the Falcons have done this past offseason.
The BPA at 8 — a running back named Bijan Robinson
Atlanta garnered the biggest headlines of the NFL draft when they took a swing at arguably the most talented player in the class — Bijan Robinson — continuing their philosophy going BPA in Round 1 no matter the position.
Robinson is one of the best running back prospects the NFL Draft has seen in a long time. PFF graded him out as the best RB prospect in the last 15 years. He set the single season PFF record in 2022 with 104 broken tackles, ran a 40-time of 4.46 despite stumbling out of the gate, ranked third among all RBs in the 10-yard split and was in the top six in both the broad jump and vertical jump.
(The Falcons made Bijan Robinson the highest drafted running back since Saquon Barkley in 2018).
Robinson showcased the speed, elusiveness, footwork, balance, vision, pass blocking and receiving ability that made him one of the best running backs ever witnessed at the collegiate level.
One NFL personnel executive called him a “much tougher” runner than Saquon Barkely, who in 2018 became the highest drafted running back since fellow Penn State alum Ki-Jana Carter was taken Number 1 overall in 1995. Barkley is one of the best backs in the NFL when healthy, and he even tallied more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage (and 15 total touchdowns) in his rookie season.
Bijan has also garnered comparisons to legends of the game and hall of famers like LaDainian Tomlinson (NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks made this comparison) and Marshall Faulk (former NFL wide receiver and ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson made this comparison).
While the Falcons have repeatedly stated that they will use Bijan Robinson as more than just your traditional running back, moving him around the field and taking advantage of his receiving abilities, there isn’t doubt that the majority of his snaps will come in the backfield; one he will share will Tyler Allgeier, who just just broke Atlanta’s all-time franchise rookie rushing record originally set by William Andrews just a season ago.
The devaluation of running backs since 2011 and how Atlanta is taking advantage
Yet despite all of this, Robinson was one of the most polarizing picks in the draft. On one hand, the Falcons took a no doubt top three talent in this class (number one according to some evaluators) all the way at pick eight. On the other hand, Robinson is a running back, which has become arguably the most devalued position in football — a direct consequence of the passing evolution of the past 15 years, and a direct benefit for the Falcons in their strategy of going against the grain.
In 2011, we noticed a shift in the philosophy of how teams view running backs during the NFL Draft. That year, University of Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was the only running back selected in the first round.
(Mark Ingram was selected with the 28th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, becoming the only running back to hear his name called on Day 1 that year).
Since the NFL-AFL merger (1966) up until 2011, there have been just two years where multiple running backs were not selected in the first round — 1984 (Greg Bell) and 1966 (Jim Grabowski). That’s just two instances in 45 seasons, equating to just 4.4% of drafts which saw fewer than two RBs taken on Day 1. I actually went season by season and checked to see how many running backs were taken in the first round of each draft before 2011 (going back to 1966). You can see those details below:
Pre-2011 since the merger, number of RBs selected in the first round — 2010 (2), 2009 (3), 2008 (5), 2007 (2), 2006 (4), 2005 (3; all in the top 5), 2004 (3), 2003 (2), 2002 (2), 2001 (3), 2000 (5), 1999 (2), 1998 (4), 1997 (2), 1996 (3), 1995 (5), 1994 (2), 1993 (3), 1992 (3), 1991 (2), 1990 (6), 1989 (5), 1988 (5), 1987 (7), 1986 (5), 1985 (3), 1984 (1), 1983 (4), 1982 (7), 1981 (6), 1980 (5), 1979 (5), 1978 (3), 1977 (2), 1976 (6), 1975 (2), 1974 (6), 1973 (4), 1972 (3), 1971 (8), 1970 (5), 1969 (4), 1968 (4), 1967 (5), 1966 (1)
At the time, 2011 could have been considered an anomaly. Maybe just a bad year for running backs, and it wasn’t something we’ve never seen before. The trends since then, however, prove that this indeed was a philosophical shift in the NFL landscape and not just an outlier.
In 2013, there was not a single running back taken in the first round of the draft. That’s the first time that’s happened since 1963 (when there were only 14 teams in the league). In 2014, that same phenomenon happened again. From 2011 and on in fact, there have been six drafts which did not have multiple RBs selected in Round 1. There have been 12 drafts total in that time period, which totals to a 50% rate. This is a dramatic shift from the 4.4% we saw between 1966-2010. I once again went season by season to see how many RBs were taken in Round 1 of each draft since 2011:
Since 2011 number of RBs selected in the first round — 2011 (1), 2012 (3), 2013 (0), 2014 (0), 2015 (2), 2016 (1), 2017 (2), 2018 (3), 2019 (1), 2020 (1 with the final pick), 2021 (2), 2022 (2).
The 2022 (2) are represented by Bijan Robinson and Detroit’s selection of Jahmyr Gibbs at pick 12, which was among the most heavily criticized selections in this year’s draft.
Now, did running backs suddenly just fall off a cliff and get worse after 2010? Absolutely not. They just aren’t seen as valuable commodities anymore.
Since 2015, the following is a list of running backs who have been selected in the top 10 — Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley. All of these players outside of Fournette and Barkley were named to the Associate Press All-Pro team multiple times, and Fournette helped lead the Jacksonville Jaguars to one of their greatest seasons in franchise history as a rookie. Barkely was unlucky not to make the All-Pro team in his stellar 2018 season, because Gurley and Elliott were deemed slightly better than him, and he just missed it once again in 2022. All were at one point the undisputed engine of an NFL offense, and a couple still are.
Barkley and McCaffrey to this day are among the most feared names in the league, and Gurley would be as well if not for an unfortunate arthritic condition in his knee that more or less shortened his career.
Bijan Robinson graded out as a better prospect than all of these stars coming out of the draft. Yet his selection at eight still came with just as much criticism as it did praise.
The truth is that if you were to pluck Robinson out of today’s age and put him in the mid-2000s or earlier, he would be a no-brainer selection in the top 5 and one which would bring the selecting team near universal praise, much like Darren McFadden was in 2008 (Number 4), Reggie Bush in 2006 (Number 2) and the trio of Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams in 2005 (Number 2, Number 4, Number 5).
The passing evolution has completely shifted the narrative against the once lauded running back position. Nearly every team in the league seems to be scrambling for the same suddenly much scarcer resources while the once incredibly valuable superstar running back is now available at more of a bargain for a team like Atlanta, that’s made it a priority to go after what isn’t prioritized in the mainstream. And before you tell me that eight isn’t a bargain, I’m more so saying that it is one when you take positional value out of the equation and consider that Robinson is arguably the best overall prospect.
But what about the guys who will be blocking for Atlanta’s lethal RB duo of Robinson and Allgeier? The story of Atlanta’s identity can’t be told without looking at maybe the greatest staple of it — the offensive line.
Atlanta’s offensive line — run blocking road graders
Below you will find Atlanta’s primary starting offensive line unit from 2022. Inside the parentheses you will see their overall PFF pass blocking grade and then their PFF run blocking grade.
Left Tackle Jake Matthews (Pass Blocking: 80.9; Run Blocking: 69.5)
Left Guard Elijah Wilkinson (Pass Blocking: 70.7; Run Blocking: 64.4) — no longer with the team.
Center Drew Dalman (Pass Blocking: 55.1; Run Blocking: 69.5)
Right Guard Chris Lindstrom (Pass Blocking: 81.7; Run Blocking: 93.1)
Right Tackle Kaleb McGary (Pass Blocking: 66.9; Run Blocking: 91.6)
(Atlanta’s offensive line was ranked as PFF’s fifth-best unit in the league in 2022, mostly thanks to their run blocking prowess).
I’m sure you can see the pattern here. Four of the five spots on the lineup are projected to be occupied by the same starters in 2023. Three of those four players, with the exception of Matthews, were much better run blockers than they were pass blockers in 2022. This is not even mentioning Matt Hennessy (Pass Blocking: 69.0; Run Blocking: 82.6), who will compete for one of the starting interior spots and at the very worst be the primary backup.
Lindstrom and McGary actually graded out first and third in the entire NFL in run blocking grade, respectively, with the great Trent Williams sandwiched in between them.
The hope is actually that McGary and Dalman both are able to improve in their pass protection going into next season to help make this unit all the more formidable and balanced, but there’s no question as to what their speciality will continue to be.
The Falcons went out of their way to re-sign McGary, whose rookie contract ran out this past offseason, penciling him into a 3 year/$34.5 million extension a few days into free agency, and retaining the services of arguably the best run blocking tackle in the game.
What about the vacant left guard spot, which is left open with Wilkinson’s departure to Denver this past offseason? That’s where Atlanta’s second round pick comes into play.
Initially sitting at pick 44 on Day 2 of the draft, Atlanta used ammunition in the form of their 110th overall, fourth round selection, to move up to pick 38 so that they could attain the services of Syracuse’s Matthew Bergeron.
(Bergeron was a standout at the Senior Bowl and his skillset persuaded the Falcons to trade up for him in the second round).
The one time Orangeman played tackle at the college level but was a standout at the Senior Bowl at the guard position. While the PFF grades from Bergeron’s senior season indicates stronger pass protection (80.8 vs. a 69.0 run blocking grade), scouts agree that he is much more of a run blocking specialist than a standout pass protector.
The following are quotes from NFL.com’s scouting report of Bergeron:
“Run-blocking technique is top-notch across the board.”
“Body control and radar to make his blocks against second-level linebackers.”
“Inconsistent footwork getting into his pass sets.”
The Falcons have already announced their intention to kick Bergeron inside and to have him play guard at the next level for them. He has the versatility to play either tackle position in a pinch, which is a bonus, but the move will allow him to utilize his run blocking skills to a maximum effect while helping mitigate those pass protection concerns which will hopefully also be improved, thus turning him into an all-around player.
Bergeron is thought to be the heavy favorite to start at left guard come Week 1. The Falcons project to have a plus run blocker at every single position of the offensive line as a result, with hopefully more consistency in pass protection than we saw at times last season.
As an added bonus, Atlanta’s two primary wide receiver additions during the free agency period, Mack Hollins and Scottie Miller, are both good run blockers (Hollins had a 74.9 grade while Miller had a 68.3 grade).
Letting the young quarterback lean on the run game
The last time the Atlanta Falcons had a quarterback as young as Desmond Ridder start the season was in 2008, when newly drafted rookie Matt Ryan went from Number 3 overall pick to face of the franchise in an instant.
That season, the Falcons ran the ball 54.17% of the time — the second-highest percentage in the league. The only team that ran the ball more often that season was the Baltimore Ravens (55.56% of the time), who also started a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco.
Of course, this coaching staff isn’t the same as the one in 2008, but the philosophy of protecting the young and inexperienced quarterback with a stout run game will likely transcend eras for the Falcons.
In the four games Ridder started after the bye week last season, the Falcons threw the ball 115 times and ran it 125 times. This is despite the fact that they trailed by multiple possessions in the second half in three of these games.
When he did pass the ball, Ridder was mostly limited to safer throws closer to the line of scrimmage, with the team opting against many deep shots. His 6.2 yards per passing attempt would have ranked 33rd in the league had he reached the minimum 200 passing attempt threshold. Meanwhile, his 3.8 air yards per attempt ranked 35th among all QBs with at least 100 passing attempts.
(Desmond Ridder is projected to be Atlanta’s starter in 2023).
In fairness, Atlanta’s most dangerous weapon, Kyle Pitts, missed all of Ridder’s starts after suffering a season ending knee injury in the weeks prior.
Maybe Arthur Smith’s play calling shocks all of us and we see an aggressive Ridder slinging the ball to his first round weapons, Pitts and Drake London, all over the field. Is that possible? Perhaps. But right now we can only infer what the data tells us, and it’s saying that the Falcons will very likely be the most conservative team in the NFL and likely the most run heavy team we have witnessed since Rex Ryan’s Jets.
There is one last piece of data I would like to share, and it illustrates just how emphatic Smith was in sticking to the run game no matter the circumstance.
Tyler Allgeier ran against a stacked box (defined here as at least eight defenders being in the box) on 40% of his carries last season. That led the league. Atlanta’s backup RB Cordarrelle Patterson ran against a stacked box on 36.81% of his carries. That was third in the league behind only Allgeier and Derrick Henry.
Defenses constantly knew that the run was coming, they consistently prepared for it by bringing more defenders to help, and Smith dialed it up anyway.
The hope is that Ridder will be able to better punish defenses for bringing more defenders into the box this season than what the Falcons’ passing attack was able to do last year, but when Atlanta wants to run the ball then they will be dauntless in doing so.
The Atlanta Falcons represented something of a throwback to the old days of grinding out yardage on the ground in the 2022 NFL season, and they seem poised to lean into that identity even more in 2023.
This is not to say that the 2023 Falcons are guaranteed to be among the elite teams in the NFL, but they have a plan for how they will attack the season, and that’s not something we have been able to say very often about this team throughout its history as an NFL franchise.
And who knows, maybe this strategy of going against the grain works. If it does, with this being such a copycat league, maybe the Falcons end up being the team that influences everyone else to return the running game back to some of its previous glory. At the very least, they seem poised to be pioneers in attempting to do so.