FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Against the Washington Redskins the Falcons had one of their best games defending the run. Against the Cleveland Browns the Falcons had their worst of the season.
So, what changed?
There isn't one glaring difference in the two performances for Atlanta (4-5), but there are some small-yet-important variations in the Falcons' play over the past two games.
Before digging deeper into what went right against the Redskins and what went wrong against the Browns, keep in mind that a 92-yard run does tend to skew the numbers a bit. Should it be discounted from the conversation? Not at all. But at the end of the day, the Falcons did give up a 92-yard touchdown run.
Take away that 92-yard run and the Browns gained 119 rushing yards on 28 carries, which is an average of 4.25 yards per carry. That's still a good number, but it's far below the 7.3 yards per carry the Falcons allowed when the 92-yard run is factored in – which it should be. It's just important to note how one run can warp the overall statistics.
After going back and watching the two games again, there were a couple of major differences in the way the Falcons played run defense against the Redskins and the Browns. With Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' run game coming to town, those differences could play a key role on Sunday.
Most notably, the Falcons won in the trenches against the Redskins and they were secure in their tackling. Against the Browns, the Falcons' defensive line didn't fare as well and they allowed more yards after contact.
Which way the line of scrimmage moves is key
One of the quickest ways to determine which team is better equipped to win in the run game is to determine where the line of scrimmage moves after the ball is snapped.
If a defensive front is pushing the offensive line backwards at the snap, the defense is in a more solid position to defend the run. The reverse of that is true as well. At the snap, watch how far the lines move in either direction.
Against a depleted Washington offensive line, Atlanta consistently got a good push from its defensive line. This not only forced blockers back into the path of the runner, but it also kept the Falcons' linebackers free to flow to the play and attack the hole.
On the play above, the Redskins snap the ball at the 44-yard line. By the time Adrian Peterson receives the handoff, however, much of the offensive line has been knocked by to the 40- or 41-yard line. That push means Peterson has to stop and adjust before he can really even get going, and the result is a 2-yard loss.
The Browns' offensive line did a much better job at maintaining their position on the line of scrimmage, allowing their running backs to be patient and find a crease. When the offensive line prevents penetration and can hold ground or push defenders backwards, that's when medium to longer runs can occur.
On the play below, the Browns don't allow any penetration, giving Nick Chubb time to evaluate what was in front of him and find a hole for a 10-yard gain.
When an offensive line can effectively block defensive linemen, blockers can disengage from double teams and climb to the second level to block linebackers and safeties. The Redskins were unable to do that effectively against the Falcons, while the Browns were better about scheming plays designed to get offensive linemen on linebackers at the second level.
The tackle by Foye Oluokun on the play below is one of the clearest examples of how leaving linebackers unblocked can cause a play to fail. Oluokun had a clear run at the hole and met Peterson in the backfield to drop him for a loss.
The Browns appeared intent on getting blockers on the Falcons' linebackers. Cleveland had multiple play designs that called for linemen to chip a defensive lineman before moving up to the second level and taking Atlanta's faster linebackers out of the play. Most run designs call for this to some extent, but the Browns executed it well.
On the play below, the Browns' center and left tackle chipped Deadrin Senat and Derrick Shelby, respectively, before moving up to block Oluokun and Kemal Ishmael. A lane opened up behind these two blockers at the second level, allowing Chubb to make a cutback and pick up 8 yards.
Stopping a runner with the first defender
Atlanta's defense is at its best when it swarms to the football and makes gang tackles. Sometimes that means the first defender stops the runner in his tracks and allows his teammates to rally to the play and attempt to knock the ball loose.
Peterson has long been one of the NFL's hardest runners and he often generates a lot of yards after contact. Against the Falcons, that wasn't the case.
Atlanta regularly got Peterson on the ground with the first defender.
Against Chubb and Duke Johnson, the Falcons had a harder time securing the tackle. By allowing the Browns' runners to slip free of the first or second defender, a medium gain sometimes turned into a 10- or 20-yard gain, as is the case on the play below.
Small details will matter on Sunday
Which version of the Falcons' run defense shows up on Sunday could mean a lot as far as the outcome of the game is concerned.
Ezekiel Elliott carried the Cowboys offense in their win against the Philadelphia Eagles, gaining 151 yards on 19 carries and scoring two total touchdowns. The Cowboys (4-5) haven't been as dominant running the ball this season as their reputation might lend some to believe, but they've still been very good in that area.
Dallas currently averages 133.4 yards per game on the ground this season, which is fifth-best among all NFL teams. For reference, the Browns have the sixth-best rushing attack, averaging 133.2 yards per game, and the Redskins have the 10th-best ground game, averaging 121.2 yards.
Small details like keeping offensive linemen from getting to the second level, winning one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage and preventing Elliott from slipping past defenders will determine which Falcons' run defense we see on Sunday.