Running backs are generally known for their ability to take a handoff and break tackles as they pick up chunks of yards down the football field. There are other running backs that do far less running with the ball and more blocking in the backfield for the team's quarterback. They are less heralded.
It's a plus when you have a running back that can do both things equally well. It's even more of a plus when you have two on the same team.
According to ProFootballFocus' Pass Blocking Efficiency review of running backs in the 2011 season, the Falcons had two of the league's best running back blockers in the league.
Using a formula involving allowed quarterback sacks, hits and hurries and the number of pass blocking snaps in the season, PFF dettermined that Atlanta's Michael Turner and Jason Snelling were the second- and third-best running back blockers last season.
Only Buffalo's Fred Jackson had a better rating. Jackson was the only running back in the NFL that didn't allow a single quarterback disruption last season.
Turner, Atlanta's leading rusher last season with 1,340 yards, stayed in to block 72 times last season and allowed only one pressure. Snelling saw 57 pass-blocking opportunities and also allowed only one pressure.
While it's a great achievement to have two great blockers at the running back position like Turner and Snelling, ideally you don't want them to find themselves in that position. The Falcons, as any time does, wants to seal off enough pressure with their five offensive linemen to not need much help from the running back position.
With an influx of new coaching in Pat Hill, a new potential-starter in Vince Manuwai, another year of development for Joe Hawley and the return of center Todd McClure, the Falcons figure to have an improved offensive line in 2012.
What makes the talents as blockers of Turner and Snelling so interesting is the ways they can be used next season, even with the hoped-for improvement of the offensive line. With two backs as an extra blocker-extraordinaire, the coverage for quarterback Matt Ryan could be substantial. With time like that to survey the field and let things develop, the Falcons may be able to unleash the vertical passing game of Dirk Koetter.
Head coach Mike Smith has often referred to the team's hope to improve vertically when he has discussed the signing of new offensive coordinator Koetter. While Turner, Snelling and second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers work to set up the pass with their running, they can provide Koetter with an even more durable safety net for Ryan to make things happen down field.
It shouldn't come as a surprise if in another season or two, Rodgers also makes the same list as one of the league's better pass blockers. During training camp last season, when the topic of Rodgers was given to Ryan, Smith or any other offensive players, they all said the rookie running back would first have to prove his ability to pass block.
As the season progressed, that ability improved and Rodgers continued to find himself on the field more and more. Smith said after the season one of the things that surprised him most about Rodgers was his toughness and strength.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Falcons backfield looks safe in the hands of Turner, Snelling and Rodgers, no matter what is needed of them.