There's a lot of talk about balance in the NFL. One offensive theory says a team needs to be balanced–effectively running the ball and passing equally–to be successful in the league.
This season the Falcons, long considered a run-first team under head coach Mike Smith, haven't featured the running game as much as they have in the past. Of Atlanta's 335 offensive snaps this season, 124 have been run plays, a 37 percent clip of run versus pass.
When you have the kind of pass-catching weapons the Falcons have in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, it makes sense to feature the pass a little more. But Atlanta's offensive philosophy goes beyond that. The Falcons have seen a variety of looks from opposing defenses this season and in each game with each different look, they've adjusted accordingly to expose weaknesses in what the defense is giving them.
"I think we've kind of done it differently in each game," quarterback Matt Ryan said on Wednesday. "I think it depends on how games shake out and how defenses are going to play against us. Some weeks it's been some more passes, but we've run the ball effectively when we've needed to this year. I think when we needed to last week, Mike Turner's touchdown run last week was kind of the clincher and that came through the run game."
While Atlanta has run far less than they've thrown, as Ryan points out, the running game, and specifically Turner, the team's top running back option, have run well when it counted the most. In the last two wins, Turner has rushed for 78 yards in the 4th quarter, averaging 7 yards per carry.
The bottom line with the offense is they've done what's needed, playing off what the defense shows them.
"I think balance is doing what you need to do to win, and I think we've done that so far," Ryan said.
A lot of what Atlanta has seen this season is an effort to stop Turner and the running game. As that has happened, Ryan, calling plays at the line of scrimmage, has reacted to that, ensuring the offense gets into a play that's a better offense to what the defense is showing. Gone are the days when the Falcons will run the ball just to do it, but no one on the offense thinks a lack of Turner is a good thing.
"I think something that a lot of people fail to see ... we're going to take what the defense presents us," center Todd McClure said. "We're not going to run the ball because we have to run the ball and try to smash our head into brick wall. If they present too many guys in the box, we're going to throw it and that's what we've got a lot this year, but it's always good to get the big guy going."
Against the Redskins last week, taking away the run was a big part of the Redskins' plan with the safeties playing up. They also were trying to make sure no deep passes beat them. The way the Falcons responded is a perfect example of how they've reacted all season long. With the deep ball not an option, they settled for intermediate gains. They only had three plays of 20 yards or more and their longest was just 29 yards, which didn't come until the 4th quarter.
Relying on the shorter passing game allowed tight end Tony Gonzalez to have one of his best days with 13 catches for 123 yards. With the kind of personnel the Falcons have, it makes it easier to not be reliant on one particular phase of the game. This season they've shown an ability to better respond to whatever is happening within the game.
And at the end of it all, they're scoring points and that's all they're looking to do. You have to score to win and you can score in a variety of ways.
"The big thing for us is to score points and there are a lot of ways to score points," head coach Mike Smith said. "You can score them running. You can score them passing. You can return interceptions. You can score on special teams. Whatever we have to do to win. I think that's the mindset that we have right now."