Do the Falcons Have A Running Back Controversy?


Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Falcons struggled to run the ball with any consistency and as a result opposing defenses were able to ‘pin their ears back’ and get after Matt Ryan. Having seen what happened with the team unable to run the ball this offseason the Falcons invested in improving the rushing attack; they drafted offensive tackle Jake Matthews, running back Devonta Freeman and signed right guard Jon Asamoah. So far the results are fairly good as the Falcons have had some success running the ball and they look like a far more balanced team as result. However, there are calls for the team to cut back Steven Jacksons snaps and instead share his workload between the other three running backs on the roster; Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith. So what should the Falcons do with their running backs?

Firstly, for a bit of context here are some stats on the Falcons rushing game through three games:

  • The Falcons are 10th in the league averaging 4.6 YPC
  • The Falcons are tied 5th in the league with 4 rushing touchdowns
  • The Falcons are 16th in the league in YPG, averaging 121.3 yards rushing per game

While none of these stats are overly impressive the Falcons really don’t need them to be, the Falcons are a pass first team and for as long as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are around it will stay that way. All the Falcons need from their run game is enough production that opposing defenses are forced to respect the run therefore giving Ryan and the offensive line time in the passing game. For a team like the Falcons the run game’s biggest asset is that it gives the offense the ability to use play action passes, and with a team that included Julio Jones, Roddy White and Devin Hester this is a dangerous weapon to have at your disposal.

Through three games the rushing attack has looked much improved, the run game hasn’t taken over any game and in fact in the loss to Cincinnati the Falcons abandoned the run game early on and the results were clear to see, the Bengals defensive line were able to rush, blitz and hurry Ryan all day in what would ultimately end up being an ugly loss for the Falcons. While the run game in general has looked improved, there are still question marks about how the Falcons are using their backs.

Through three games the running back snaps are as follows:

  • Steven Jackson – 80 snaps
  • Jacquizz Rodgers – 73 snaps
  • Devonta Freeman – 38 snaps
  • Antone Smith – 30 snaps

Steven Jackson as expected has seen the majority of the snaps and through three games he has 37 rushing attempts for 152 yards (4.1 YPC). A lot of fans are calling for Jackson’s snaps to be reduced as they argue the veteran looks slow and washed up. While there is no doubt that Jackson has lost a step the criticism directed towards him is unfair. Jackson has an important role in the offense as he is that bruising enforcer that the Falcons do need. Jackson offers a physical presence that the Falcons do need in some capacity especially when the three other backs on the roster are all smaller, shiftier types. Jackson has run well in his first three games, especially when you consider a lot of times the blocking in front of him has been substandard. On several occasions Jackson has done well to make something out of nothing as can be seen by his 10 missed tackles. However, while Jackson has been running well this doesn’t mean that the team shouldn’t try and get the other running backs involved more.

Jacquizz Rodgers has only seen 7 less snaps than Steven Jackson but whereas Jackson has run the ball 37 times in those snaps, Rodgers has only run the ball 17 times. It’s been clear for some time that the team views Rodgers as the pass catching running back who while they can hand the ball off too, is much more effective in passing downs as they can use him either as a blocker or a pass catcher. Something that is probably still underrated with Rodgers is his pass blocking ability, despite his stature Rodgers is by far the team’s best running back in pass protection.

Should Rodgers see more rushing attempts? Maybe, there are times when Rodgers comes in and gives the offense a spark but there are also times when he comes in and has little productivity. If anything Rodgers should probably see more looks in the passing game as he is a dangerous player in space (through 3 games Rodgers has been targeted 3 times in the passing game). Quizz is seemingly always going to be an underrated player in this offense as his skillset doesn’t always jump off the screen to you. Despite this Quizz is a very good player with a skill set that is dangerous and it’s a shame both the team and the fans aren’t calling for more snaps to go Quizz’s way.

Devonta Freeman has had a mixed start to his career. After lighting it up in preseason Freeman has only seen a handful of snaps so far this season (16 snaps the first two games) There is no doubt that Freeman is an exciting player for the future but at the moment the thing preventing him from seeing the field more is his limitations in pass protection which were made apparent in the Tampa Bay game where Freeman gave up a sack after he whiffed on a block. Despite these limitations fans are still clamoring for Freeman to see more snaps as there is no denying he is a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands. While Freeman is undoubtedly an exciting and promising player at the moment the team is handling his snaps right. Freeman still has a lot to learn about the nuances of the game and before he gains some more experience the Falcons need to be careful of what situations they put the rookie in.

Antone Smith was one of very few bright sparks for the Falcons last season as he got the chance to highlight his game changing speed to both the Falcons fans and coaches. The fact that it took the coaches as long as it did before they realized Smith was a valuable offensive weapon is extremely worrying as this is a player they see day in and day out in practice. However, for whatever reason Smith has only recently had a chance to showcase his game changing speed and luckily for the team Smith looks like an extremely useful player that they can add to their arsenal of offensive weapons.

Smith’s explosive play making ability is backed up by his stats as so far this year he has 6 carries for 57 yards and 3 catches for 73 yards. There is no doubt that Smith can be a game changing player for the Falcons if they put him in situations where he can win. With a player like Smith there is almost no value in using him like a running back. Smith isn’t built to take the pounding of a running back and having him run between the tackles doesn’t allow him to put his skillset to good use. The Falcons need to do as much as they can to get Smith the ball in space whether it’s as a runner or a receiver.


While the Falcons are no longer a run first team the run game is still just as important to the success of this offense. As the Bengals game in week 2 showed the running game opens everything up and when teams can shut down this rushing attack, they can pretty much shut down this offense. Regarding which backs the Falcons should play it really depends, there is no right or wrong answer as each game requires a different approach and a different player for certain situations.

However, in general the Falcons should try and get their explosive playmakers the ball as much as possible. With the running backs this means getting Antone Smith the ball as much as possible as his speed is almost unplayable. Regarding Steven Jackson, the biggest problem with the Falcons offense is that at times it gets too conservative and predictable and this is exactly what Jackson is, conservative and predictable. Jackson is not going to rip off long runs on a regular occurrence any more, instead he is going to grind opposing defenses down which his tough, downhill running. While Jackson’s role is important it doesn’t mean the team should neglect the skillsets of players such as Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman. The Falcons finally have genuine depth and talent at the running back position, it would be a shame if they wasted it by predominantly handing the ball off to an aging veteran.

(All stats courtesy of ESPN and Pro Football Focus)