With an inexperienced quarterback, the Atlanta Falcons recognize the importance of an effective running game. They also know they haven’t been able to carry that plan out recently.
The Falcons look to take advantage of one of the NFL’s worst run defenses when they host the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
Despite a first-year coach and a rookie quarterback, Atlanta (4-3) is already one win away from surpassing its total from a tumultuous 2007. That surprising success has the Falcons in the mix in the NFC South - sitting 1 1/2 games behind first-place Carolina.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, has exceeded expectations in his first season, passing for 1,441 yards and seven touchdowns. He has been helped by a productive backfield led by Michael Turner, who ranks third in the NFL with a career-high 655 rushing yards to go with six touchdowns.
While Turner, who hasn’t scored a touchdown in the last two games, admits that the running game has been on the decline recently - failing to break 100 yards in the last two games after averaging 180.6 yards in the first five - he expects it to return to form soon.
“It’s not a concern,” Turner insisted. “The running game is something we believe in. We’ve just got to execute better.”
Coach Mike Smith said the team just needs to see the field better.
“There were plays out there,” he said. “There always are. A cut here, a missed hole there. There were some plays where we didn’t have the vision we need to have, or maybe we didn’t get a downfield block from a wide receiver. There are always a number of things that constitute why a play is not effective or successful.”
The offense, though, isn’t Smith’s only concern right now. His defense gave up a season-high 432 yards of total offense last Sunday in a 27-14 loss at Philadelphia, marking the third time in four games that Atlanta has allowed more than 400 yards. The Falcons are yielding 370.9 yards of total offense - eighth-most in the league.
Atlanta, however, faces a defense that is have even more trouble keeping opponents in check. Oakland (2-5) is giving up 377.3 yards per game and ranks 26th in the league in rushing defense, allowing 144.1 yards.
The Raiders managed a dismal 35 yards of total offense in the first half en route to as 29-10 loss to Baltimore last Sunday. JaMarcus Russell wasn’t particularly effective, going 15-for-33 for 228 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“The first half, we just got our tails whipped at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” Oakland coach Tom Cable said. “There’s really no other way to put it.”
The Raiders hope to get a boost offensively with the possible return of rookie running back Darren McFadden, who sat out last week because of turf toe on his left foot. A similar injury on his right foot had limited his effectiveness in the first few games.
McFadden missed practice on Wednesday, but still hopes to play Sunday.
“I have high hopes,” he said. “I always have high hopes of playing. But as far as trying anything, we’ll just see as the week goes on how it feels.”
McFadden, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown in his second game against the Chiefs, but since then has averaged only 32.8 yards per game and hasn’t found the end zone.
With McFadden absent against the Ravens, the Raiders had only 47 total rushing yards - the fourth time in five games they failed to break 100.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “You get a chance out there in Kansas City, you feel like, ‘Hey, I can play in this league. I can run with the other guys.’ Then you come back and you been dealing with this for the last five or six weeks, it’s something that, it just wears you down. At the same time, you have to keep pushing through it and try to block it out.”
Atlanta ended a three-game losing streak to Oakland with a 35-10 victory in the most recent meeting on Dec. 12, 2004.