The Atlanta Falcons were adamant about running the football on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, and they made that clear on their very first possession of the game.
After winning the coin toss, the Falcons elected to start on offense and proceeded to establish the run against one of the NFL's top run defenses. Atlanta ran the ball on six of its first seven plays, gaining 57 yards and setting up a Younghoe Koo field goal to take an early 3-0 lead.
That drive proved to be a sign of things to come for a Falcons offense that had struggled to run the ball this season in the face of some big score deficits. Atlanta faced no such deficit during its 26-9 victory in New Orleans, and the Falcons used their ground attack to dominate the time of possession and keep the Saints' potent offense on the sideline.
"Any time you can give this offense less chances and less possessions that, to me, is the key," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
The most rush attempts the Falcons had in a single game entering Sunday was 25, which came in their one-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Atlanta shattered that number in New Orleans, running the ball 34 times for a season-high 143 yards.
Even more impressive than the Falcons' output on the ground was that it came against a Saints defense that entered Sunday's game allowing an average of 84.3 rushing yards per game, the fourth-fewest in the league. Right from the jump, however, it was clear Atlanta was going to test the validity of that statistic.
"It was a huge part of the game plan," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Coming into it we wanted to be able to establish the run and get that going. I thought our offensive line played extremely well."
It was a group effort for the Falcons running the ball. The first carry of the afternoon went to receiver Calvin Ridley, who broke free for a 19-yard gain on a sweep around the left end on the first offensive snap for Atlanta. Later on the opening drive, Kenjon Barner took a direct snap and picked up 12 yards.
The bulk of the work was done by second-string running back Brian Hill, who became the team's bell cow after Devonta Freeman exited the game with a foot injury and did not return. Freeman finished the game with 38 yards on 10 carries, while Hill earned 20 carries for 61 yards and also had a 10-yard touchdown catch.
"This team trusts Brian in a big way," Quinn said. "When his moment came to deliver he was able to. We don't know the extent of [Freeman's] injury or where he's at, but Brian was certainly ready for the moment. He's one of the hardest workers that we have."
Once the Falcons built a first-half lead, the team's defense, led by a pass rush that notched six sacks, helped them keep it. That allowed Atlanta to stick to its run game and possess the football for over 33 minutes, flipping the script yet again on the Saints, who entered the game averaging 33:18 in time of possession, the third-best mark in the NFL.
Atlanta had four scoring drives of 10 plays or more, and the same number of drives that spanned at least 60 yards. It was the most efficient and balanced offensive approach the Falcons have put together thus far in 2019.
The Falcons entered the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday morning with the league's top passing offense but just the 29th-ranked rushing attack. Despite their success throwing the ball, the Falcons coaching staff has stressed how important it is to have more balance and become more effective on the ground. During its victory in New Orleans, Atlanta showed exactly why that balance is so important.