If the Falcons want to return to the postseason, the team may have to start changing the way the offense is centered.
If you ever played the past few Madden video games, you would have probably heard Phil Simms, in video game commentary, say “I know we’ve all heard this a thousand times, but it’s a passing league” about once a game.
While Madden’s commentary duo of Phil Simms and Jim Nantz has gotten stale over the years, Simms’ passing game statement has never been more true. The NFL has completed the metamorphoses from being a ground and pound league, to airing it out, in the past decade.
However, the run game is far from obsolete. In a generation that has seen six of eight 5000 passing yard seasons since 2011 (a seventh being achieved in 2008), defense and the run game have remained the keys to success in the NFL.
I say defense and running game together because the two are intertwined. A good defensive performance will result in having a lead throughout the game, letting the ground and pound take full effect against a trailing team; while the run game results in more time of possession, letting the defense rest and be refreshed throughout the match.
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Last season, six teams ran the ball at least 48% of the time: Buffalo, Carolina, Minnesota, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Kansas City (who ran it 47.96%, but that gets rounded up to 48%). Five of these six teams made the playoffs, while the Bills were ravaged by injuries but still managed a respectable 8-8 season.
Of those six teams, the five that made the playoffs were also all in the top half of the NFL in total defense last year.
Running the ball at a high percentage also helps limit turnovers, which was an Achilles heal for the Atlanta Falcons last year. The six aforementioned teams that led the league in rushing percentage all did a great job taking care of the ball: all six were in the top 10 in fewest giveaways last season (turning the ball over less than 20 times).
Conversely, of the 11 teams that ran the ball at the lowest percentage, only one team made the playoffs. That team was the New England Patriots: a squad that boasts an elite quarterback (Tom Brady), and by far the best tight end in football (Rob Gronkowski).
New England also had the fewest turnovers in the league, but they’re just an anomaly because of Brady, who had another season for the ages last year.
The Atlanta Falcons ran the ball 420 times against 1041 total offensive plays. That’s a rushing percentage of 40.35%, good for just 19th in the league.
What the Falcons do have going for them is the fact that the offense absolutely controlled the clock last year: they had an average of 32:11 time of possession per game, second to only the NFC champion Carolina Panthers, who controlled the clock for only 1 second longer on average (32:12).
That time of possession is great, it’s something to build off of, but it means absolutely nothing if you turn the ball over. Atlanta turned it over 30 times last year, good for fifth worst in the league. Running the ball more will limit these turnovers (provided that RB Tevin Coleman gets over his fumbling problem).
It would behoove the Falcons to also run the ball at a higher percentage in the redzone, a place of horrors for QB Matt Ryan last season. Ryan’s quarterback rating in the redzone was just 83.6% last year, one of the 10 worst in the league.
Behind the strength of pro-bowler RB Devonta Freeman, recent third round RB Tevin Coleman, a legitimate zone blocking scheme, and a strong offensive line that just upgraded its interior, Atlanta has all the ingredients for a strong, clock controlling, turnover limiting run game. Now it’s just up to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to dial up the run at a higher percentage this year.
Six of 10 playoff teams last season were in the top 10 in rushing percentage (they were run first teams). Among the other six playoff squads: three teams trotted out an elite top 5 QB (Pittsburgh, New England, and Green Bay), one had the best defense in the NFL (Denver), and the other two won the two weakest divisions in the NFL (Washington, NFC East; Houston, AFC South).
Atlanta does not have the good fortune of having a top 5 quarterback or a top 5 defense, and they aren’t playing in a weak division. The only other path to the playoffs, as portrayed last season, is to become a run first team that’s among the top 10 in rushing percentage.