FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Bijan Robinson had 22 carries against the Arizona Cardinals, a sum that stands as his career high.
It came during a Week 10 contest where the television broadcast detailed the first-round running back's usage, or lack thereof, over and over again through graphics and steady discussion. While the No. 8 overall pick's involvement has been a hot topic all year – fantasy football owners need their points, man – it hit a crescendo the week prior, after the Falcons slipped below .500 due in part to scoring opportunities missed where Robinson wasn't used much.
If we take away the Tampa Bay game as an outlier – when Robinson was active but barely played due to illness – Robinson had averaged 12.75 carries, with 5.03 yards per carry, over eight games prior to the Cardinals loss. If you include all games played, Robinson ranks third in the NFL at 4.9 yards per carry and third with 20 carries of 10-plus yards. Those latter stats illustrate his explosiveness. He also gets stuffed (for no gain or just a yard) 12.8% of the time, per NextGen Stats, the NFL's second lowest total.
That led many to wonder whether an increased workload with such efficiency would've helped the Falcons win a few more games.
Smith took the brunt of such criticism from the media and fans due to his role as head coach and offensive play caller. He got none from Robinson himself. The rookie actually came to Smith's defense after the Cardinals game.
"He's making me feel comfortable in the game," Robinson said in the postgame locker room. "He doesn't want to just throw me out there just to get a lot of touches or whatever. He wants to do it the right way. He knows I'm a rookie. He wants to gradually get me going.
"…It's important. I know people give him grief and stuff, but I feel like, when we talk, it's important to get a rookie in the right way and not just throw him out there and get him banged up early. It was good to see what he was doing. But, in the second half of the season, we've got to do whatever we can to get wins on the board from week to week."
That just might be the case moving forward. The Falcons have to stack wins, starting with Sunday's pivotal home game versus New Orleans, to realize their goal and win the NFC South.
Smith talked a lot about his young running back in his Wednesday press conference, praising how Robinson has navigated the season and stating that he'll be a significant contributor as the Falcons carry on.
"To me, he has exceeded our expectations," Smith said. "A lot of times, it's the little things that you guys don't see -- I think he's mature beyond his years. Like all of us, (he) would love to be undefeated. (He) would love to score 500 touchdowns, but he's a guy that continues to work. He understands, too. That's why it's important to have the right veterans around him, so when you go through ups and downs, as anybody does, he fought through them.
"I think what you saw (versus Arizona) was kind of what you saw earlier in the year, too. However it divvies out, he's going to have a huge role in our game plan."
To this point, Robinson and Tyler Allgeier have had an equal number of carries, exactly 125 each. Robinson has done more with his, but the pair has been positively impactful in a run game that's steady even when facing loaded boxes. Robinson has fared well in those situations and overall, churning out 96 yards over expectation, per NFL NextGen Stats. He also ranks 12th with 612 rushing yards despite having fewer carries than everyone ranked above him.
Proper usage is important to Smith in the short- and long-term. Finding a balance between overload and under-use can be delicate, though the Falcons can afford a conservative approach, considering both Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson can effectively carry the football.
Robinson was drafted sky high for a reason, and Smith says he has been impressed by how he has handled the highs and lows of the longest year of his athletic life. Robinson has essentially been on since the start of last season at Texas, with the pre-NFL-draft process starting right after that. Then he gets taken at No. 8 and rolled right into the offseason and, after a brief summer break, into training camp and the regular season.
Smith says Robinson has dealt with all that well.
"He's a huge part of the game plan," Smith said. "To me, it's what he can handle. And you try not to do too much to overload one player, but he's very unique, in that regard, for a young player."
Robinson believes the professional schedule is actually easier on the mind and body, with more time for treatment, body maintenance and mental breaks away from the game. He's also learning the system and his role in it. He's confident and ready to take on however significant a role Smith gives him.
"(The game is) slowing down for me and I'm starting to get more comfortable in how I play the game at this level," Robinson said. "I'm always just to trying to keep growing and getting better. But I take it one day at a time and let the gifts that I've been given -- showing that on field but getting better every single day and not get comfortable or complacent in my abilities. So, you know, I'm trying to it one step at a time and then go out there on Sunday and let it all loose."
Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the New Orleans Saints, presented by Fast Twitch.