The Atlanta Falcons should have one of the league’s great rushing attacks in 2023, but they did not. The quarterback situation ultimately got Arthur Smith fired, but the way the ground game regressed this past year despite the talent on hand probably should have been discussed more here and elsewhere. The sorry state of the passing attack just overshadowed it.
Despite that, and despite the fact that the great Cordarrelle Patterson faded into the background this year and may not return, the team is set up with one of the better running back duos in football for years to come. That and a few brilliant moments and games softened the blow of a disappointing year and mean we should look forward to better this coming year.
Why did these two fall short of expectations? What is their 2024 outlook? Let’s talk about it.
RB Bijan Robinson
The Falcons took Robinson with a top ten pick, a rarity for running backs in the modern era, and thus ensured that he had to be spectacular in order for the selection to be viewed as a success. Robinson largely was, but a lack of stupendous production and some frustrating lapses with fumbles and as a receiver plus Arthur Smith’s at-times baffling usage of the young back ensured a great rookie season still felt like it fell short of our sky-high expectations.
As a runner, Robinson was as advertised. Silky smooth and fluid and with an ability to turn a crack of daylight into a big gain, and his 4.6 yards per carry (tied for 11th in the NFL) and 2.7 yards before contact average (tied for 10th in the NFL) attest to how quick he could be and how he managed to turn seemingly hopeless plays into gains. We’d like to see even smoother and savvier running from Robinson going forward because his potential is that good, but 976 rushing yards on just 214 carries is damn good. What Robinson needs in 2024 is just more high-impact opportunities.
Where things were less inspiring were in pass protection and as a receiver. Robinson did steadily improve in the former over the course of his rookie season, becoming a more useful player when he wasn’t actually touching the ball, which bodes well for his 2024 workload. As a receiving option, he also appeared to improve down the stretch, but it was certainly an up-and-down season for a back who had six drops, three interceptions on targets headed his way, and a solid but unspectacular 58 receptions for 487 yards. The telling statistic here is that just 24 of those 58 catches turned into first downs; largely Robinson was utilized as a checkdown option instead of the potentially game-breaking talent his ability suggests he can be as a receiving option.
Overall, though, it was a fine rookie season and gave us a good picture of what Robinson will be capable of when he irons out some of the first-year issues as a receiver and blocker, which is one of the league’s elite backs. He put up the 10th-highest scrimmage yards in the NFL and eight touchdowns in a dysfunctional offense; with Zac Robinson now at the helm and fresh out of a Rams offense that showcased Kyren Williams effectively, the second year could be special.
RB Tyler Allgeier
No player suffered more from the offensive dysfunction and the competition added by Robinson than Allgeier. In his rookie season, he put up 4.9 yards per carry and a rookie record 1,035 rushing yards as a bulldozer in Arthur Smith’s offense, but he regressed across the board in 2023 despite receiving just 22 fewer touches.
Some of that was out of Allgeier’s control. Allgeier is not going to make defenders miss behind the line of scrimmage and needs a little room to get rolling, when he becomes a bowling ball with legs who is hard to bring down, but he was routinely seeing contact behind the line of scrimmage. Only six qualifying players averaged the same or fewer yards before seeing contact than Allgeier; some of that can be chalked up to his lack of initial burst, but not nearly all of it. Allgeier averaged well under four yards per carry and had far too many unproductive runs.
The team’s reliance on him in the early going and well into the year was marked by a simple truth: He’s the most physical runner on the roster, and he was a much better player in pass protection than Robinson throughout much of the year. It’s not hard to understand why the Falcons fell in love with Robinson, but Allgeier was a player they knew and liked for good reason, even if he had an uninspiring year overall. The big plays were still there—get Allgeier some space to work and a head of steam and he is hell to bring down—but it was hard not to pine for more Robinson touches when those had higher upside than the average Allgeier touch.
Still, Allgeier was actually a more effective receiver in 2023 than 2022, though much of that production came on a couple of big catches and rumbles. As a useful and physical runner, quality blocker, and occasionally useful receiving option, he’s ticketed for a role in 2024 and should fare better if Atlanta can block more effectively for him and/or the lack of a compelling passing attack is addressed. The only issue for him is that if Robinson continues to blossom into a superstar, he’s simply going to get less work.
RB Cordarrelle Patterson
This was likely it for Patterson in Atlanta. A spectacular surprise in 2021 and a mighty effective player in 2022, Patterson saw injury limit his playing time and effectiveness at times, while Smith simply declined to utilize him others. He had just 50 carries and nine receptions on the year, paltry production for a player the Falcons were counting on as recently as last year.
Having Robinson and Allgeier fueled a lot of that, but it’s still hard to understand why Patterson couldn’t get more work as a receiving option given that neither Robinson nor Allgeier were standouts in that regard and the team had little in the way of credible receiving threats beyond Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Jonnu Smith. Given that Patterson still has something in the tank and likely isn’t interested in being RB3 in Atlanta again, we’ll likely bid him farewell after a memorable run.
Overall performance: Solid but mixed
I think the backs largely did what the team needed them to do, but at times poor blocking, a lack of commitment to the run, and their own lapses meant the Falcons were far less effective on the ground than they ought to have been.
They were 9th in yardage but just 16th in yards per carry and 15th in rushing touchdowns, which paled in comparison to that standout 2022 season despite the addition of an exciting young talent in Robinson. We still saw solid production on a game-by-game basis and terrific moments, but if you wanted to call this team’s rushing in 2023 at least a mild disappointment, I’m not sure anyone would quibble with you.
Outlook: Very bright
The presence of Robinson and Allgeier, plus a talented offensive line, add up to plenty of reasons to believe in this rushing attack going forward. Allgeier will remain a fine player and Robinson has a chance to take a step forward as an all-around player this coming season, and that plus any new additions and the return of speedy back/returner Avery Williams ought to add up to improvement. This past year’s dysfunction and disappointment is unlikely to last with a fresh coaching staff on hand.
Above all, though, it’s unlikely to last because the Falcons would be hard-pressed to field a worse passing attack in 2023. I mentioned in my quarterbacks review that the extreme number of turnovers and mistakes turned the passing attack into a laughingstock teams barely tried to defend, allowing them to key in on this rushing attack, and any peelback of that through improved quarterback play and a better supporting cast will take pressure off the ground game in a way that should improve production. Add up exciting young players, a new coaching staff, a (likely) improved passing attack, and a quality offensive line and it’s impossible not to feel rosy about where this thing is headed on the ground. Even if Arthur Smith’s visions of an elite ground game in Atlanta won’t unfold the way he wanted them to with his firing, the team still has the pieces to make something special happen in 2024, and I expect they will.