The Falcons run game started the 2021 season off right. It was aggressive and efficient, well-timed and well-crafted. The Philadelphia Eagles didn't know how to slow it down early in a game they eventually won, with Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson slashing and bashing their way through the defense.
The Falcons had 87 rushing yards in the first quarter alone, exceeding the output of seven games the previous year. It was cause for optimism in the quest for offensive balance unattainable in 2020.
"The effort and the intensity that our backs played with, I think that's something you can hang your hat on [for] both those guys," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I thought we ran the football really hard."
They weren’t able to sustain it, with efficiency and opportunity dwindling as the Eagles took a commanding lead they would not relinquish. That leaves us to wonder whether that early rushing output was a mirage something repeatable.
That's the topic Scott Bair and Tori McElhaney will discuss in this week's Great Debate.
Bair: The Falcons run game was indeed awesome early on. Head coach/offensive play caller Arthur Smith dialed up 13 runs in the first quarter that averaged 6.6 yards per carry. That's, you know, pretty freaking good. Davis and Patterson were taking yards in chunks because they were running hard, had space and were executing well-designed plays.
Patterson popped a decent one in the second quarter also, but that's when the well started to dry up.
The whole operation looked so good early on, but there's cause to be skeptical. For one, the run of rushing success constitutes a small sample size. It was also done with the score close and the teams feeling each other out.
I can understand both sides of this argument, but there's one reason I believe the Falcons will be a good -- notice how I never said great -- rushing attack: Arthur Smith.
He's a creative run designer with a track record of success moving the ball on the ground, out of varied formations. While he didn't bring Derrick Henry with him from Tennessee, I think he can use Davis' physicality and Patterson's speed to keep the ball moving throughout the season.
What say you, TMac?
McElhaney: TMac. Love it. That was my nickname back in my softball-playing days. If that is how you wish to address me moving forward, I won't be mad about it. But I digress. No one came here to hear us talk about my plethora of nicknames (because yes, there are a few).
Here's what I tend to think about the run game, and it actually goes back to something Dean Pees once said about the defense (I swear I am losing the novelty for how much I talk about this guy). But I remember asking Pees a question not too long ago about Marlon Davidson. Davidson told me during camp that every single day Pees comes up to him and tells him to be the player they’ve seen on tape. When I asked Pees about this he basically said (paraphrasing of course): "Look, he did it. We know he can do it. Go out and do it again."
When it comes to this run game, I think this thought can stand as relatable. I feel as though, between Patterson and Davis, they've set a tone that I wasn't quite prepared for them to set, which was that they could show that they can carry a more balanced offense. I understand Smith when he said he had to get away from the run in the second half because, well, you're down and time is ticking. So, OK. They had to become – as he put it – "too obvious" late. I think, because of that, it isn't inconceivable to think this run game can have consistency moving forward.
But there is still the thought in the back of my mind that I am fully getting my hopes up with this run game based solely on a quarter's performance. So, I'll leave you with this: Look, they did it. We know they can do it. Go out and do it again. Prove to me that this run game isn't – as you said – a mirage.
However, I think we both know this run game only goes as far as run blocking takes it. With that said, where – oh where – does this offensive line go from here?
Bair: There's only one way to go, and that's up. While Jalen Mayfield has taken serious heat for his Week 1 performance, the rookie left guard wasn't the only issue. Center Matt Hennessy wasn't good. Neither was right tackle Kaleb McGary.
That's of concern because it's not just one position that needs to get fixed. It's not like they can replace Mayfield and everything's hunky dory. The whole unit needs to do better and can't rely on play design to make life easier. Sometimes you must be efficient even when the whole world knows what you're going to run. That's what the good ground games do. They get four yards in a cloud of dust or, in Mercedes-Benz Stadium's case, a turf-pellet tornado.
And while outside zone runs are key to Smith's scheme, you've got to be able run inside, on both sides. That means more than Chris Lindstrom needs to create consistent space.
We saw against Philly that Patterson makes the most out of the space he gets. We all knew the dude was fast, but did you think the career receiver would be so good as a rusher?
McElhaney: To be completely honest, I was not expecting Patterson to look as solid as he did in the run game. I wrote on Monday in my notebook that I am not above saying I am wrong when I am wrong. And boy, I definitely misjudged Patterson and the way this staff would use him. I thought I knew – just knew – that Patterson was going to be more of a receiving threat than he was a traditional back.
I thought that right up until his first carry, and then I was like, "Wait a minute."
Scott, I remember us talking at practice one day about Patterson. I don't know if you remember this conversation, but I think we both agreed that if Patterson could get to his fourth or fifth step he could be dangerous because that's when he switches into another gear. He runs hard, and because of his build he's difficult to bring down. All of this was evident in what he did in the return game over the course of his career, and coaches thought that could translate to the run game. And from my vantage point, I thought it did in Week 1. In my opinion, Patterson was the biggest surprise and brightest star on an otherwise dark night for the Falcons offense.
But none of Patterson's performance matters if this run game isn't consistent, and the offense can't produce touchdowns. This can't be a one-quarter happenstance with Patterson dazzling for 15 minutes. It needs to be consistent, and it can't be overshadowed by other offensive issues as it was on Sunday.