FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Yes, the Falcons running back room looks very different heading into Week 5 of the season than it did when the season began. If this is August and we're saying this, perhaps there's some apprehension. But it's not August. It's October, and the depth the Falcons feel they have developed at the position is taking center stage.
When training camp came to an end, the run game hinged upon the success of veterans like Cordarrelle Patterson and Damien Williams. Tyler Allgeier - the Falcons rookie running back - was left waiting in the wings. He was even inactive against the Saints in Week 1. Then, there was Caleb Huntley, a Falcons practice squad player who was just elevated to the active roster prior to Sunday's game against the Browns.
Both young and with limited NFL experience, the original plan was that Williams and Patterson would be the work horses in the run game. But then, Williams injured his rib in the very first game of the season and was later placed on IR. Furthermore, after the best rushing performance of his career, Patterson was placed on IR earlier this week after injuring his knee.
When Patterson was held back on Sunday against the Browns, though, it wasn't like the Falcons missed a beat with Allgeier and Huntley leading the charge. They thrived in a 202-rushing yard performance.
Through four games of 2022, the Falcons have hit triple digits in the run game three times (and one can assume they only didn't against the Rams because they were playing from behind and the clock was not on their side). For some teams, this isn't an uncommon occurrence. For Atlanta, an organization that has struggled to consistently run the ball for years, it was. (Emphasis on "was").
At the end of 2021, the Falcons had one of the worst collective rushing performances in the league. They ranked 31st (out of 32 teams) in total rushing yards and 30th in average yards per carry. They ranked last in explosive runs over 20 yards, and had the least number of rushing first downs when comparing that number to other teams in the league.
In a word, the Falcons run game left much to be desired, and it was not the run game Arthur Smith envisioned this organization having for long.
Four games into the 2022 season, the Falcons run game is night and day from where it was last year.
Comparing the statistics, the Falcons are now the fourth most productive rushing team in the league. They are ranked sixth on the leader board in average yards per carry, and have the fourth most rushing touchdowns. They've already surpassed last year's total of two runs over 20-plus yards. They currently have three through four games. Atlanta also ranks in the top five in rushing first downs.
In a word, the Falcons run game has evolved.
Smith said on Wednesday that he saw flashes of the team the Falcons could be running the ball at certain points last year. He recalled the win in Jacksonville, the early portion of the second game against Tampa Bay at home, and then facing Carolina on the road. Those games are the three games that, Smith said, showed progress.
So, he was asked: What changed for the Falcons from 2021 to 2022? Is there something he would attribute the catalyst of that change to?
For starters, Smith said the Falcons offensive operation as a whole has been tweaked a bit since last year.
"There are a lot of things we've changed behind the scenes offensively," Smith said. "We have different personnel, guys who needed to develop and we're very pleased with the guys who were here last year."
Personnel is a major factor, but Smith said the real catalyst of change in rushing production is way more mundane than that.
"The most glaring is probably not going to be the answer you're looking for because it's the consistency," Smith said, "and the work habits."
For the Falcons in 2022, there's been an obvious commitment to become a more physical team. That commitment is most obviously seen in the way this offense (particularly this offensive line) is operating in the run game.
On Monday, Jake Matthews thought back to a specific drive against the Browns that saw the Falcons put the ball on the ground 10 times on a - yep - 10-play drive. Matthews - who has been with the Falcons since 2014 - said he doesn't think he's ever been a part of a drive like that.
"We're very proud of that," Matthews said of the offensive line's role.
For the Falcons, they're out to prove they can run the ball consistently. So far, that has been the case.
After the win against the Browns, Smith said what sticks out to him the most about the improvements in the run game is that the Falcons plan to run the ball isn't a secret, and yet they're performing quite well in the run.
"We're not creeping up on anybody. People know we want to run the football," Smith said on Sunday. "That's what fires you up, and it won't be that way every week. We're going to have a challenge. We know how competitive it is. But when you can run the ball, when they know you're going to run it, that speaks volumes about your guys."
It's something the Falcons want to continue to do at the clip they have started 2022 with.
Get a roof top view of the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cleveland Browns from the top of Mercedes-Benz Stadium during Week 4 of 2022.