Football is back. Well, football has been back for months, but the brand of football that made this America’s new pastime is back — and it’s especially back in the Dirty South.
The Atlanta Falcons, who are exceeding expectations up to this point with a 3-3 record, suddenly have a promising future under the tutelage of head coach Arthur Smith. An offense that initially looked like the Island of Misfit Toys has put together an impressive run of play over the first six games of the season. Not only are the Falcons moving the ball, but in a league that's seeing robust improvements to run games with several franchises as more teams play in two-high shells, even the Falcons are distinguishing themselves.
This offense is punishing defenses. It’s not the best or the most explosive offense in the league, but the Falcons have committed to an identity of grinding games out on the ground in a pass-happier NFL. And it’s working.
According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, the Falcons rank seventh in expected points added per rushing play (0.001), fifth in rushing success rate (45.2%) and seventh in overall expected points added per play on offense. This is a big deal for a team that has $77.4 million in dead cap. They aren’t really supposed to be performing at this level right now. Based on the resources available to them, they’re a year ahead of schedule.
How they’re getting this done is different from almost every other team in the league. According to Next Gen Stats, the Falcons are running pistol formations at the highest rate in the NFL at 37%, lead the league in two-back sets at 28% and are running the most condensed formations in the league with an average formation width of 21.4 yards. For a team that appears to be singularly focused in how they want to move the ball, the Falcons need to give themselves advantages to achieve that goal.
In one offseason, Smith and the Falcons revamped the style of their offense. Marcus Mariota is a much different player than Matt Ryan, the quarterback he replaced in Atlanta. Mariota has allowed the Falcons to add an extra ballcarrier into their run game.
Falcons running back Caleb Huntley spoke glowingly on the impact that Mariota has had on the Falcons’ ability to run the ball in an interview with Yahoo Sports.
“He’s a dual threat,” Huntley said about Mariota. “There’s no telling what he can do. He can pass, he can run. So, I feel like that keeps defenses on their toes. Also with the offensive line, say they miss a block or something like that. He can always spring himself free and get away from blitzes.”
Mariota’s mobility has been a key part of their running game and his ability to create with his legs certainly has saved the Falcons from some tricky spots.
Even with his ups and downs this year as a player, Mariota’s presence allows them to be a team that lives in pistol. Those formations, where the quarterback is standing in front of the running back while still not being under center, aren’t necessarily new to the NFL, but they still do make things tough and complex on opposing defenses.
“Honestly, I feel like they can’t really get a beat on us,” Huntley said. “They don’t know if we’re going to run or pass out of the pistol because we have so many caveats in this offense. I feel like they really can’t get a beat and some of the angles we’re running at.”
One thing that has helped the Falcons running game, much to the chagrin of fantasy owners across the world, is the presence of talented receiving options like tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Drake London. Even in games where the Falcons don’t throw the ball a lot — which is just about all of them —defenses can’t just load up the box and sell out against the run. Pitts and London can still burn secondaries. When teams come out with two safeties deep to help protect themselves against Pitts and London, the Falcons are running it.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Falcons have the second-highest run rate against split safety looks at 48%. Their run game is as diverse as they come with a healthy mix of zone and gap running schemes. Huntley said he’s never been a part of a run game that has this many options.
“This is like my first time with all these different types of run schemes, I like it though,” Huntley said. “I really don’t have a favorite, I just like when it’s my opportunity to take advantage of it. Whether it’s outside zone, inside zone, a gap play — I just try to do it to the best of my abilities.”
While Huntley is experiencing an offense like this for the first time, rookie running back Tyler Allgeier played in an offense that featured similar run schemes as the Falcons during his time at BYU. Allgeier, like the rest of the Falcons offense, is a bruising running back that’s helped shoulder the load with Cordarrelle Patterson on injured reserve.
“BYU trained me really well to get into an offense like this.” Allgeier said. “The schemes and all that and then playing with a mobile quarterback which is always great.”
The quarterback, running backs and passing game threats have all played a role in the Falcons’ success so far, but the meat of this offense is a vastly improved offensive line. Elijah Wilkinson and Drew Dalman are new starters on what was arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL last season. This year, they’re mowing people on the ground.
“They’ve been working their ass off,” Allgeier said. “It’s always a privilege getting to run behind those big boys. They don’t get as much love as you would think because they’re offensive line. Interior guys don’t usually get that much love, but they always make us right. Whatever our running game success is, it all starts with them up front.”
Huntley, who was with the Falcons during the 2021 season, has been around to experience the Falcons’ most improved positional group in 2022.
“Honestly, it’s just been the little things,” Huntley said. “Just buying into the process and trusting what coach Smith wants from us and what we expect from each other. There’s no huge plan or no huge thing that changed, just everyone bought into one goal.”
That one goal appears to be what Smith said during the Falcons 23-20 win over the Cleveland Browns: run the piss out of the ball.
So far, it’s been a viable solution for the Falcons and created a bright future after a couple of tough offseasons losing franchise legends. A new era has started in Atlanta, and it might spread across the NFL. Time will tell to see exactly how good this regime ends up being, but for now, they’re the team that every defense hates to play.