FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Regardless of how the final three games of the regular season play out, the Falcons will be able to say - without a shadow of a doubt - that 2022 was the year a consistently productive run game was established in Atlanta.
We've been dancing around this idea for a while now. We've written time and time again that for the first time in what feels like a decade the Falcons are a run-first team. Well, we've made it to Week 16. So, it's quite alright to say that the 2022 Falcons were the ones to officially transform this offense in this way as it bridges the chapters of the franchise's history from Matt Ryan to... whoever comes next at the quarterback position.
Whether its Desmond Ridder or someone in the next draft class or someone on the trade market, whoever that person is will have the benefit of coming into a situation where the run game is a security and stabilizer, not spotty and shoddy.
Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: Yes, the Falcons pass game has been lacking in 2022. No one is discounting that fact. They have to be more productive and more balanced offensively. But it can also be true that the run game has outperformed expectations in 2022 and it's a big reason why this 2022 team saw any success at all.
Since Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary were drafted in 2019, the Falcons only surpassed the 100-rushing yard mark in 16 games through three seasons. So, in roughly 50 games played from 2019 to 2021, Atlanta was only amassing triple digits in the run game 33 percent of the time. In 2022 alone, the Falcons have rushed for over 100 yards in all but one game. They have played 15 games this year. You can't get any closer to 100 percent unless you're at 100 percent.
More so, from 2019 to 2021 the Falcons never surpassed the 200-rushing yard mark. They've done so four times this year.
The problem, though, is that the Falcons have only won one of those four games. A consistent and productive run game isn't necessarily equating to wins for Atlanta right now. But it could equate to two other things: 1) an established offensive identity, and 2) a baseline to work off of.
So, what is that baseline, per se?
Atlanta has a top-three rushing offense in almost every rushing category in the league this year. In terms of total rushing yards this season and a rushing yards per game average, only the Bears and Ravens (the Falcons upcoming opponent) are ahead of Atlanta.
Since the first month of the season, the Falcons have time and time again shown they can run the ball regardless of how loaded a box is. Since the first month of the season, Atlanta has had a top-five rushing offense. Now that we're in the final month of the season, we can look back and ask: How did they do it? And, how can they replicate it?
Well, the answer is a bit more boring than you may think.
The Falcons consistency in the run game is based in an extremely monotonous approach in perfecting run blocking at the line of scrimmage.
"It's day-to-day, monotonous, drudgery work. It really is," McGary said. "We do the same things every single day. The same drills. I cannot tell you how many thousands and thousands of times I have done the exact same four drills. And that's what it's about, until your reaction is instantaneous, where it's muscle memory."
Offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford said it's been like that since he - and the rest of this offensive coaching staff - got to Atlanta last season. There was a specific culture Ledford and head coach Arthur Smith wanted to establish at offensive line, specifically.
"For us it was always the same message about the style and how we play," Ledford said. "It might not have looked like that on the first day. It might not have looked like that on that first week. But we always talked about how we have to keep pounding that stone and eventually that stone is going to break open. That's our part in the culture that we want in that room."
The work that built the foundation of this run game is not flashy or fun or interesting. It really is hitting a stone over and over again until it breaks open, like Ledford said. And you know what that takes? Patience and a heck of a lot of practice hitting the same spot over and over again.
This offensive line lives by the 10,000 hour rule, according to McGary. This rule states that it take 10,000 hours of consistent repetition to master a given skill.
"I couldn't even begin to tell you where we are in that scale but we've done a lot... We have since last year when we started doing these drills with the new staff. We do them every single day, and we'll sometimes do them twice a day. We just do them so much, so often," McGary said.
"It's nothing flashy. It's nothing exciting. It's just thousands and thousands of repetitions."
A couple months ago, Smith was asked in one of his many mid-week press conferences to explain what he believes led to improved production in the run game. He said then that the answer isn't what you'd probably like it to be. Fast forward to McGary and Ledford's comments and they align. It's all about the mundane of blocking drills.
It also should go without saying that continuity within this position group has played a role in the expanded production of what they've been able to do in run blocking. Even though the Falcons have a different center than last year in Drew Dalman and even though they have been forced to play four different men at left guard this year, still, all but Elijah Wilkinson and Chuma Edoga returned from last year.
McGary used his relationship with Lindstrom as an example for why it does.
"We understand how to work together very, very well because we've just done it so much," McGary said. "It goes back to the repetition thing. We have done so many combination blocks together, thousands and thousands of them, that he knows where my eyes are going to be. I know where his eyes are going to be. I know if I see movement at the backer level based on what our block is, even if Chris doesn't say anything, I know what he's probably going to do. I'll change what I'm doing to match what I think he's going to do. I know he does the exact same thing with me with a different block."
"It just all goes back to the monotony. Doing the same things over and over again until you master them."
So, there you have it.
The reason the Falcons have been able to flesh out the run game in two years' time is because they have a foundation in a monotonous, practiced approach that they have found works for them, regardless of what another team is attempting to do defensively. They also have established a conviction under Smith that they will be a physical front, even mean when they want to be.
They have all of that established, as well as the stats to back it up.
As the next year progresses, though, it'll be about adding on to this production by way of the pass game, too. A point in which the full scope of Smith's offense's potential in Atlanta should be seen.
We take a monochrome look at the game against the New Orleans Saints on December 18, 2022.
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