ATLANTA — For the past three seasons, the Falcons have ranked at the bottom of the NFL in rushing. Their 27th place finish in 2018 was their highest in the past three seasons, when Tevin Coleman led the team with 800 rushing yards. The Falcons have not even had a thousand rusher since Devonta Freeman ran for 1,079 yards in the 2016 season.
The Falcons brought in reinforcements in the offseason to fix their running game, including Arthur Smith and running backs Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Davis emerged in 2020 when he became the featured back in Carolina after Christian McCaffrey went down to injury, gaining 642 rushing yards, 373 yards receiving, and eight total touchdowns. Patterson rushed for 232 yards last season, splitting time at wide receiver and running back.
Smith came from serving as offensive coordinator for the past two seasons in Tennessee. The Titans' offense went through Derrick Henry, the NFL's rushing champion the past two seasons, and became just the eighth running back to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark last season.
And the difference in the running game was felt immediately in Sunday afternoon's regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Davis burst out a 12-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, lowering his shoulder trucking a defender before going down. Patterson found open lanes with ease too. His first two carries went for a combined 25 yards.
At the end of the first quarter, the Falcons had already accumulated 86 yards, beating their total amount in seven different games last season. By the nine-minute mark in the second quarter, the team had 102 rushing yards, surpassing their 95.8 per game average last season. The rushing attack had fans excited, even one tweeting, "Cordarrelle Patterson is my new favorite person. Mike Davis is moving up the charts."
But, as the clichè goes, all good things must come to an end. And the running game had ground to a halt by the second half.
For the remainder of the game, the Falcons gained just 22 yards on the ground and just 16 in the second half. The team did not gain any yards on the ground in the third quarter — finishing with negative two yards.
As the running game faded and the Falcons deficit grew much larger, the offense was forced to go to the air, but with no fear of the running game by that point, it made it challenging for the Falcons to get anything going. And with pass rushers not afraid of the run, Matt Ryan was under heavy pressure almost every drop back. He was sacked three times in the second half.
Ryan said he thought Patterson and Davis ran well, but the lack of effective drives hurt their chances of keeping the running game going on the ground.
"We just needed to do a better job later into the game in getting into some drives, getting a couple first downs, and getting rolling," Ryan said. "I think early in the game we did that, and we saw them start to finish runs and runs coming out the back end for big gains."
Rookie Jalen Mayfield made his first NFL start at left guard on Sunday. Mayfield said he knew heading into the game how good the Eagles' defensive line was and that the Falcons' came out physically because they knew they needed to against the Philly defensive line, but that mistakes from him and the others cost them in the run game.
"When you trail, you can't run the ball as much, but we still have to do a better job capitalizing on our opportunities," Mayfield said. "There were minor details that we have to work on. I know there were mental errors that I made. Other than that, we have to keep improving during the week and find ways to do better against Tampa next [Sunday]."
Ultimately, Sunday's game against the Eagles showed a glimpse of how effective the Falcons run game could be, but if the Falcons face large deficits in games, the run game will have no chance.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles during Week 1 of 2021.