Atlanta was a run first team for the first three years of the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era. Even 2010 when Ryan has what was up to that point a career year, the ball was handed off a terrific amount of times to running backs in order to grind the clock, wear down the opponents defense, and open up passing lanes for the aerial attack.
In 2011, the mantra changed toward a more passing oriented attack, but poor play on the offensive line necessitated a return to the power run game. Now in Atlanta, and around the league really, there is a perception that the identity of the team is wrapped up in running the ball and that without play-action passing, Matt Ryan is not a quarterback who can get things done. I’m here to tell you that this is not true. Horrific protection necessitated the run game, which by default made the play-action game the only way effective passing could be implemented (without getting our franchise QB killed).
Nevertheless, the Atlanta front office has continued to give Falcons fans continuity in the backfield, something that is not a bad thing given the “backfield by committee” approach that has become prevalent in the NFL today. Michael Turner was at a time a bell-cow back, but after taking a beating the last four seasons, Coach Smith has decided to relent upon the number of touches Turner gets in games. Keeping him fresh for goal-line and 4th&1 or inches situations will be critical. Turner has a good burst still, but unless his carries were reduced, it would be difficult to maintain that burst over the remaining years of the contract.
That brings us to the running backs who will be filling in for Turner. Jacquizz Rodgers was drafted in the fifth round last year, and proved to be a scat-back type of player. He is not overly fast, but he moves laterally very well, and despite his short stature, he is strong and is not afraid to receive and dole out hits. As was evidenced by his tremendous touchdown catch vs. the Carolina Panthers last season, he has excellent hands coming out of the backfield, and if what is said about new Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter bringing more screen play next season, Rodgers is the perfect candidate to be the receiver those types of passes.
That brings us to the newest re-signee of the Falcons, Jason Snelling. He received a three year, $4 Million contract from the Falcons. This is a monumental bargain, as his versatility is unmatched by most of the backs in the NFL. Snelling has done a great job in games where he filled in completely for Turner, taking all of his between the tackles carries, as well as showing the speed to get around the edge to find running lanes. He also has shown very good hands. The Falcons rarely ask him to make over-the-shoulder catches like shown in that video of Rodgers, but coming out of the backfield and posting up making catches is a forte for Snelling. He hangs onto the ball, can make defenders miss, and gets solid yards after contact. If this play doesn’t have you completely sold on Jason Snelling, nothing will. On top of that, Snelling played fullback when Ovie Mughelli went down with an injury. Snelling is as selfless and willing as they come, and a perfect part of this team.
The Falcons depth chart at most positions, even quarterback, is fairly unsettled as of right now. Before this free-agency period begins in earnest, as we know exactly who will be available to sign and who we will let walk, many things are in flux. I can say with certainty that the running back position is one where we know who we will see for the Falcons on any given Sunday.