Time and again, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter have stressed the importance of finding balance on offense. The logic behind that approach is simple: It is much more difficult to defend an offense that is successfully running and throwing the football than one that is either ineffective in one of those two aspects or situationally forced to lean on one more than the other.
Through the first half of the 2019 season, the Falcons have not found the balance they seek. Atlanta currently boasts the league's best passing offense, averaging 317 yards per game through the air. The Kansas City Chiefs are the only other offense that averages more than 300 passing yards.
But while the Falcons have put up plenty of passing yards, they have the fourth-fewest rushing yards per game with an average of 68.5 yards. Only once this season, their 34-33 loss against the Arizona Cardinals, have the Falcons gained more than 100 yards on the ground, and they've been held under 60 rushing yards in half of their games.
As with anything involving football, however, the broader stats don't tell the whole story. That's likely the case when it comes to Atlanta's rushing attack in 2019. The rushing yardage totals for each game are noteworthy, but they aren't as telling as the rushing attempts the Falcons have had in their games this year.
Only once this season have the Falcons attempted more than 20 rushes in a game, making them the lone team in the NFL to have that particular distinction.
Atlanta has the third-fewest amount of rushing attempts in the league through the first eight weeks, and the two teams with fewer attempts – the Dolphins and the Jets – have played only seven games (and are a combined 1-13, which is also noteworthy).
"I think our main issue is the lack of attempts, and that's not on the players," Koetter explained when discussing the Falcons' ground attack.
The easiest place to start in explaining the low output from the Falcons' run game is the flow of the games they've played.
Atlanta has played eight games in 2019, and the Falcons have faced a double-digit halftime deficit in six of them. Those deficits have often been fairly substantial, as the Falcons have been outscored 144-50 in the first half this year.
There are a number of ways to throw a team's offensive balance off, but building a quick lead is one of the best, and Atlanta's opponents have been able to do that this season.
For their part, the Falcons have tried to remain as balanced as possible when the score has allowed them to do so. On first-and-10 with the game tied, Atlanta has run the ball on exactly half of its plays. Even when down by one score, the Falcons have run the ball nearly 42 percent of the time on first-and-10 plays.
The problem this year has been that the offense hasn't had many series when the Falcons were tied or trailing by just one score.
Atlanta has had just 12 possessions when the score has been tied, and it has had only nine possessions while leading against another team. Conversely, the Falcons' offense has had 15 series when trailing by one score and a whopping 42 series where they've trailed by multiple scores.
"I certainly hope that, when we start better, we'll be able to do that … to stay more in balance of what we'd like to do," Quinn said of the offensive imbalance. "Sometimes the stats can be a little misleading at the end based on the number of passes to get back into it. I'm hopeful when we put our whole game together, which obviously is still out there for us, that those numbers would certainly look a lot different."
The Falcons have run the ball 77 times on first-and-10 plays this year, which is 28th in the league. It is fair to state that, although games have largely dictated that Atlanta abandon its run game, the results haven't been there even when they have run the ball. On those 77 rush attempts, the Falcons have gained 243 yards, which are the second-fewest among all teams on first-and-10.
If the flow of games was truly having an outsized impact on the Falcons' offensive balance then that would also manifest in the team's passing numbers, right? That's been exactly the case thus far. On first-and-10 plays, Atlanta has thrown the ball 146 times for 1,319 yards and 61 first downs, all of which are league-best totals.
Below is a table comparing the Falcons' offense to some other notable NFL offenses in their play selection and yardage totals on first-and-10. Where those stats rank among the 32 teams is shown in parentheses.
|Team||Runs||Rushing yards||Passes||Passing yards|
|Falcons||77 (28th)||243 (31)||146 (1st)||1,319 (1st)|
|Ravens||110 (5th)||550 (4th)||78 (25th)||470 (27th)|
|49ers||128 (1st)||608 (1st)||61 (32nd)||521 (24th)|
|Cowboys||109 (8th)||466 (9th)||80 (22nd)||667 (14th)|
|Chiefs||78 (26th)||389 (19th)||126 (3rd)||1,179 (2nd)|
That helps to paint the picture for the stark rushing statistics from Atlanta's offense and starting running back Devonta Freeman, but there's another element here at play as well.
Koetter has previously stated that he views quick passes out of the backfield as an extension of his offense's rushing attack. It's essentially a long handoff meant to rapidly get the ball in the hands of a back out in space. Fans who have watched Falcons games this season have also seen various screen passes as another example of this line of thinking.
So, while Freeman might have only 13 carries in a game, he could finish with 21 total touches, as was the case in the Falcons' most recent game against the Seahawks. Koetter's line of thinking in that regard have led to an uptick in Freeman's usage in the passing game compared to recent seasons.
In his first eight games this year, including the Rams game in which he was ejected early in the third quarter, Freeman has been targeted 40 times and caught 35 passes for 272 yards and three scores. During that same eight-game sample size in 2017 – the last season in which he was healthy for much of the year – Freeman was targeted 24 times and caught 19 passes.
Even in the first eight games of the Falcons' remarkable 2016 season that culminated with a Super Bowl run, Freeman was targeted 34 times and caught 26 passes.
It should be noted that not all of those targets are the result of a specific play call. Just as the lopsided point differentials have played into the Falcons' low rushing numbers, they may be boosting Freeman's receiving output.
As teams protect their leads in the second half, they are often willing to give up short passes to the middle of the field in exchange for better protection against deep, explosive plays. Time becomes more important to the winning team than yards, and an opponent is okay with letting the Falcons complete short passes as long as the clock keeps ticking.
Freeman and tight end Austin Hooper, who is enjoying the best season of his career thus far, are naturally the beneficiary of that approach as they operate in the area of the field defenses are usually vacating. That, too, is born out in the statistics. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Falcons have thrown the ball to their running backs 39 times in the second half – a time when they are most often trailing this season – which is the second-most in the NFL. They have targeted their tight ends 45 times in the second half, which is third-most.
"Our two main check-down guys are going to be the tight end and the halfback, and that's why those guys are getting the ball checked down to them a lot," Koetter said. "When teams try to take your two wide receivers, especially Julio and Rid, and they double them or play two-deep zone and try to take those guys out, the guys that are going to be more open are the tight ends and the halfbacks."
The Falcons have not been able to run the ball the way they have wanted through the first half of the year, but it's not as simple as pointing to the overall statistics as proof that they've been bad on the ground.
The more opportunities a team has to run the ball the greater the chance that a big play will occur. The Falcons just haven't had enough opportunities to establish their run game this season.