FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Now that the 10th week of the 2022 season is upon us, we can officially say the Falcons are a run-first team. Sure, we could have said this sooner. It's felt like this was their offensive identity since the third week of the season when Cordarrelle Patterson ran for a career-high 141 yards in Seattle.
And who would have thought, right? For the first time in - let's say - a decade, the Falcons are a physical and productive offense when running the ball.
The Falcons currently have a top five rushing offense. They're No. 3 in the league in total rushing yards accumulated in 2022, and they average 4.8 yards a carry through nine games. As our Nerdy Birds report pointed out last week, the Falcons were the first team in NFL history to have four players with over 250 rushing yards through the first eight games of the season.
So, yes, the run game is working for the Falcons in 2022. But what has led to this very obvious shift in the way Atlanta not only views the run game, but relies upon it? Players and coaches agree that it has everything to do with a conviction to run the ball. That conviction stems from an intention set by the Falcons prior to the 2022 season.
"I think from the standpoint of the run game, it goes back to the mentality and the style in which we want to play," offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. "Obviously, we have the ability through certain formations, personnel, and different things to try to create certain advantages, but really it's those guys coming out and playing extremely fast."
What's interesting, though, is that according to who you ask, they have a different answer as to when this intention and style of play was officially set.
Take Marcus Mariota as the first example. The quarterback got to Atlanta at the end of March. So, for him, this intention set by coaches had the most notable foundation well before the 2022 season began.
"It started in the offseason," Mariota said. "It was something that was laid out. It was explained to us. It was an identity - so to say - that we wanted to be. Those guys live it every single day. When you have a coaching staff that truly prepares you in that manner guys go out there and they feel that confidence so they can just go out there and play."
Now, use Jake Matthews as the next example. Matthews has been a Falcon since he was drafted in 2014. He was Matt Ryan's blind side protector on the left side of the protection for years. He saw the final days of the Dan Quinn era and he was there the day Arthur Smith took over.
That intention that was set? That mentality that the Falcons play with in the run game? Yeah, that happened when Smith walked in the door.
"Even before (the 2022 offseason), even last year we had goals to do that," Matthews said of establishing the run in Atlanta. "There were some games where we felt like we did a great job, but we thought we could improve in that a lot more and that's been our mindset this whole offseason and leading up into this season."
Matthews said it's something that is really important to his fellow linemen, as well as the offensive unit as a whole.
"We take a lot of pride in knowing what to do and being accountable knowing that as an offense, a lot of it starts up front with us five," he said. "... First and foremost it was important to us. We set out for that to be a big thing for our team this year and I think we are holding each other accountable in regards to that."
And there in lies the conviction this offense - particularly this offensive line - feels it has when running the ball.
Ragone, though, made a point to say that it's an all-11 mentality. But even to a certain extent, even 11 is a small number considering the Falcons have been consistent in running the ball regardless of who's the in the backfield (Patterson, Tyler Allgeier or Caleb Huntley) or who's lining up at left guard (because of injuries, the Falcons will start their third left guard in three weeks on Thursday).
To that end, Matthews said he and the offensive line knew pretty early on the type of backs they would be blocking for.
"We could tell early in OTAs the guys who were on this team and their abilities and their willingness to work hard, wanting to do well," Matthews said of the running backs. "Those guys, you know when they're in there."
It's that obvious conviction that Ragone sees within every position group, too. He sees it when receivers and tight ends block downfield. He sees it in Mariota getting the offense in the right look. And of course, it's in the offensive line's physicality.
"When you run the ball really well, it's not just the offensive line, it's everybody," Ragone said. "The offensive line obviously sets the tone ,but the rest of those guys come out with an intent and a style of play that we appreciate, and we obviously preach, and we hope for that to continue."
So, what will it take for this to continue? Mariota said it's about continuing to do what they've repped a thousand times over during OTAs and training camp.
"It was like simple, fundamental stuff. Run tracks with our backs. Play hat with our offensive line. Those guys consistently do that on a day-to-day basis," he said. "Those are things that they fundamentally work on day in and day out, even in this part of the year."
Mariota continued by saying it doesn't matter who's playing left guard, nor does it matter who's in the backfield. Because of the practice reps and live reps this offense has accumulated doing what they want to do and being productive in it, there's a confidence that has grown through 10 weeks of the season as one of the most productive run-first offenses in the league.
"I think that belief transcends onto the field," Mariota said.
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Carolina Panthers, presented by Gatorade.