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Nerdy Birds: Marcus Mariota as a runner and the Falcons balanced rushing attack 

After a thrilling victory over the Panthers last Sunday, the Falcons enter Sunday's matchup against the Chargers alone atop the NFC South entering Week 9. The Falcons will welcome an unfamiliar foe to Atlanta this week as the Chargers will make their first appearance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened in 2017.


The Falcons lead the all-time series between the two franchises, 8-3, winning six straight matchups from 1991-2012; however, the Chargers have won the past two meetings, including a 20-17 game in Week 14 of 2020.

Atlanta enters Sunday's game having won three consecutive games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first time since the stadium opened, with wins over the Browns, 49ers and Panthers. The Falcons can move to 4-1 at home this season with a win on Sunday, which would mark the best home record through five home games since the 2012 season when Atlanta won their first seven games at the Georgia Dome and finished as the NFC's top seed with a 13-3 record.

Let's dive in.


Super Mario

Marcus Mariota has added a new dimension to the Falcons offense with his ability to make plays with his legs both on designed runs and scrambles. The threat that he presents as a runner gives the offense a numerical advantage in the run game as they have to account for him as more than a passer. His presence changes the math for defenses, and that has helped Atlanta's run game flourish despite running into loaded box at the highest rate in the NFL (45.1 percent).

Through eight games, Mariota has run for 280 yards on 55 carries and is averaging 5.1 yards per tote. He has recorded 11 runs of 10-plus yards with 20 percent of his rushes gaining 10-or-more yards and, according to Next Gen Stats, the 2015 No. 2 overall pick averages 2.3 yards over expectation per rush with a success rate of 47.3 percent. Mariota's 51 rushing first downs on early downs (first and second down) are tied for the second most among quarterbacks and he ranks third in early-down rushing yards.

The game has shifted to favor mobile quarterbacks over the course of the last decade and Mariota's mobility is one of his greatest strengths. That can be seen when he decides to pull the ball down and run when things break down in the passing game. According to Tru Media, Mariota has scrambled 19 times for 143 yards, the sixth most in the NFL this season. He has generated a 3.0 total EPA on scrambles and has picked up first downs on 60 percent of his third-down scrambles.

Mariota averages 7.53 yards per scramble, which ranks sixth, while his 5.89 yards before contact per scramble ranks second. He has had a net positive impact when he scrambles past the line of scrimmage, but he's also been effective when he scrambles to avoid pressure or extend a play while keeping his eyes downfield for a throw to open up. Mariota's biggest strength is his creativity and ability to impact the game with his legs and arm.

Scrambling is an important dynamic in today's NFL. It allows quarterbacks to escape pressure, keep plays alive longer and, perhaps most importantly, sustain drives. There are a lot of quarterbacks who can scramble, but not many that are as impactful on designed runs.

According to Next Gen Stats, Mariota has the fourth-most designed runs by a quarterback this season with 28, and ranks fourth in EPA per rush on designed runs. His three touchdowns on designed runs are tied for the second most in the NFL and he is averaging 5.3 yards per carry on those runs. In total, 53 percent of Mariota's total rushing yardage has come on designed runs.

Table inside Article
Player EPA per Rush on Designed Runs
Lamar Jackson 0.61
Kyler Murrary 0.30
Daniel Jones 0.25
Marcus Mariota 0.18
Josh Allen 0.14

According to Next Gen Stats, Mariota has posted 81 rushing yards over expected on designed runs, a success rate of 53.6 percent, and 13 first downs. His four first downs over expected are tied with Justin Fields and Daniel Jones for the third most in the NFL this season.

"The Falcons offense is, to this point, extremely trustworthy," Ringer NFL Show's Ben Solak said. "Arthur Smith's ability to get a good running game from a variety of looks is -- right now, it goes Kyle Shanahan and then Arthur Smith in terms of run-game designers."

Mariota gives the Falcons an edge in the running game and Arthur Smith has taken advantage of that to implement one of the league's best rushing attacks. We saw one of the best examples of this marriage between playcaller and athlete in Atlanta's thrilling Week 8 win over the Carolina Panthers.

With the Falcons facing a third-and-1 from their own 46-yard line, Mariota lined up in the shotgun and ran a zone read play. He held the read as long as possible, slipped a tackle attempt by Brian Burns and broke free. After crossing the line of scrimmage, Mariota shook another tackle before racing to the sideline eventually being forced out of bounds 30 yards downfield. This designed run set the Falcons up at the Panthers 24-yard line and two plays later, Younghoe Koo lifted Atlanta to a win with a 41-yard field goal.

As one would imagine, the win probability chart for last week's game looked like an EKG, constantly moving up and down. Prior to snapping the ball on Mariota's 30-yard run, the Falcons had a win probably of 57.2 percent, according to Next Gen Stats. Following that play, it jumped to 82.7 percent. That 25.5 percent added win probability on one single play is impressive, but given how the play started, it was an unlikely outcome.

With Burns crashing down on the mesh point between Mariota and running back Tyler Allgeier, Mariota had first contact nearly three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Even after he was able to shake free of Burns, the play still only had an expected rushing yardage of one yard. Thankfully for Atlanta, Mariota hit the line of scrimmage at 10.82 miles per hour after 2.46 seconds and escaped to generate 29 yards over expectation and nearly 33 yards after contact.

"It was a zone read and actually I thought [Brian] Burns played it well; he kind of went down to the back and came back at me," Mariota told SI's, Albert Breer. "So he gave me a full read, and I thought that I had a chance to get outside, but he did a good job of kind of continuing down. And then from there, I just tried to make a play. Our guys did a great job blocking down the field, and I knew once I got past the 50, that we had an opportunity to win."

Mariota's ability to make plays with his legs both on scrambles and designed runs opened up the playbook for Atlanta's offense and allowed Smith to design one of the most creative and effective rushing attacks in the NFL all despite the loss of breakout star running back Cordarrelle Patterson. As the passing game continues to develop the Falcons will undoubtedly lean on their dynamic, balanced rushing attack as the season moves forward.

"The Falcons spot in the driver's seat of the NFC South is to me not like a funny thing that happened in the middle of the season. To me, that's legit," said Solak. "This offense is really, really tough to stop for any given defense. I trust them."

balanced attack 16x9

Balanced Rushing Attack

Atlanta's rushing attack has averaged 158.1 yards per game through eight weeks, good for fifth in the NFL. The Falcons have eclipsed 150 rushing yards in six of the first eight games of the season, tied with Cleveland for the second-most such games in the league this season, while Baltimore leads the way with seven games.

While Baltimore and Cleveland have been consistently successful running the ball with primary offensive weapons like Lamar Jackson and Nick Chubb, Atlanta has manufactured that same success on the ground, but doing so by committee. With Cordarrelle Patterson (340), Tyler Allgeier (324), Marcus Mariota (280) and Caleb Huntley (265), the 2022 Atlanta Falcons are the first team to have four players with at least 250 rushing yards through the first eight games of a season in NFL history.

Last week, we mentioned the importance of sustaining drives. Whether it's Patterson, Allgeier, Huntley or Mariota, Atlanta's offense has been able to move the chains consistently on the ground this season. The Falcons rushing attack has picked up 70 first downs on the ground and have converted 62.1 percent of third downs when running the ball. Not only has the rushing attack moved the ball between the 20s, but they've also had success punching it in. The Falcons have nine rushing touchdowns in the red zone this season, tied for the third most in the NFL.

While ball carriers have made the most of their opportunities for Atlanta this season, the offensive line, tight ends and receivers have done well to create room to run. Per NextGen, the Falcons are averaging 1.32 yards gained per carry before being within one yard of the nearest defender – the third most in the NFL this season.

creating space 16x9

Ball carriers have also taken that space and made the most of it, averaging 1.95 yards gained prior to contact and 2.76 yards gained after contact. With the Chargers defense allowing 4.04 yards per carry after contact this season, running through contact could play a big role for the Falcons offense to move the chains and ultimately punch the ball in in the red area on Sunday.

Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Los Angeles Chargers.


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