It would be unfair to all the weapons the Falcons have on offense to say a fullback is the key to this year's offense. That's not entirely the case, but they do have a piece at fullback that can help keep the offense disguised because of the versatility at what is traditionally a block-first position.
It won't take the NFL long to realize when second-year fullback Bradie Ewing is on the field, he's not just there to open up lanes in the run game for Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. Sure, that's what he's there to do, but he's got another skill set that he's looking forward to using. Fullbacks don't catch many passes traditionally and in this age of the NFL, fullbacks aren't even on the field that much, but Ewing is a different breed of fullback.
In his final year at Wisconsin in 2011, Ewing caught 20 passes for 246 yards, including a long of 41 yards. By his memory he didn't drop a pass all season, but he also maintained his role as the lead blocker for one of the nation's best running games. That kind of versatility is what he envisions his contribution being for this year's Falcons.
"I think coach Koetter does a great job of utilizing his weapons," Ewing said. "Obviously a fullback's got to be able to block, especially in those short-yardage situations, one of those things we need to work on from last year. (I'm) doing the traditional fullback stuff, but also being able to open it up in the pass game because we've got Matt Ryan and some great weapons."
Ewing, a 2012 fifth-round pick, missed all of last season after an injury in training camp. Back again this year after a season of rehab, Ewing was healthy and ready to go until another injury set him back for about two weeks during this year's camp.
On Tuesday, he returned to the field and barring any more setbacks, he should stay there. While he was out, he took advantage of the mental conditioning that watching from the sidelines offers.
"You can't get those physical reps, but you can get the mental reps," he said. "Watching to see how you would fit things or how you would adjust on certain plays. I just tried to literally visualize myself out there on that given play, based on what the defense does and trying to mentally go through the play."
The Falcons have a lot to be excited about with this year's offense, but Ewing may end up being a bit of a secret weapon of sorts. What the Falcons seem to want to present this year on offense is a seamless transition from run to pass. Regardless of the personnel on the field, they'll be able to run or pass and not give the opposing defense much clue as to what is coming.
Jackson and Rodgers are talented pass catchers out of the backfield and you can add Ewing to that mix. The fullback thinks the play-action pass will be effective because of the extra second or two the defense will need to determine run or pass. With linebackers reading run, the talent in the backfield can leak out into the open field and catch passes with that extra space. Versatile is the key word in this year's offense and with Ewing on the field, they can maintain that objective.
But Ewing will still be blocking more than he's catching and he's excited about blocking for a talented runner like Jackson. In advance of last week's commanding performance by Jackson and the offensive line in the run game, the running back inspired the line to stay physical and maintain their blocks for those few moments that he needs. It's a sign of things to come and Ewing considers everything his running back has to say.
"When he's talking to those guys, he's talking to me because I'm just a miniature extension of those offensive linemen," he said. "He's been a great leader the way he's stepped up and led us in the run game. It's been awesome. I haven't been doing much lately (with the injury), but to see the way he's led and his high expectations for the whole line and the run game, those expectations and pressures are really going to help us succeed."