Matt Ryan has received plenty of accolades for his mammoth passing numbers in the opening month of the season. Another came Wednesday, when the Atlanta Falcons quarterback was named NFC offensive player of the week.
Ryan prefers to recognize another group that isn’t getting quite so much attention.
The running game.
A point of emphasis throughout the offseason, the Falcons (2-1) have shown noticeable improvement on the ground by sharing the load among Steven Jackson and three other backs.
Atlanta heads into Sunday’s game against Minnesota averaging 121.3 yards rushing per game, which ranks 16th in the league. A year ago, the Falcons had the worst running attack in the NFL at just 77.9 yards per game.
“I really like where our run game is at,” Ryan said.
The Falcons had plenty of room for improvement after last season, when Jackson battled injuries and the offensive line got pushed around. Atlanta averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, eclipsed 100 yards only three times, and wound up with its lowest rushing total since 2000.
“That’s the first thing we wanted to address,” said Jacquizz Rodgers, one of Jackson’s backups. “We wanted to get the running game going. We know what we can do with the passing game. If we become a more balanced team, we can become a better team.”
At 31, Jackson is still the starter but no longer gets most of the carries, as he did during his long tenure with the St. Louis Rams. That has taken a bit of getting used to, but he seems accepting of his new role.
Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman all provide a change of pace to the lumbering Jackson, an element the Falcons are determined to use to their full advantage.
“It’s a good thing for us that we’ve got backs with different skill sets,” Ryan said. “It makes the defense have to defend a little bit more.”
Jackson is hoping less carries will extend his career and make everyone more effective.
“As a guy who prides himself on being the bell cow, I’m not sure how much rhythm I can get into,” he said. “But it definitely keeps me young.”
Freeman, a fourth-round pick out of Florida State, has already proven to be useful both as a runner and as a target out of the backfield (five catches for 47 yards).
“My mindset was to come in and help push the veterans,” Freeman said.
The running game has produced some big plays — Rodgers’ 17-yard touchdown in the season-opening win over New Orleans, Smith’s 38-yard scamper for a TD in last week’s 56-14 blowout of Tampa Bay. Also, there has been some impressive displays of versatility, such as receiver Devin Hester scoring on a 20-yard reverse and Smith turning a short pass into a 54-yard touchdown.
Ryan is just as impressed with the less-glamorous yards.
In Week 1, Rodgers ran for a 2-yard gain on third-and-1 to keep a drive going early in the third quarter, helping spark a comeback from a 13-point deficit. Against the Buccaneers, Jackson got the ball in the same situation and turned in one of his most impressive runs with the Falcons, powering for 7 yards to set up Atlanta’s first touchdown.
“Those are the kind of things that, if you’re rolling, you don’t really notice,” center Joe Hawley said. “But if you’re not getting them, you do notice. Those are really important to keep drives going.”
Ryan made sure to remind everyone that the offensive line, which took a huge share of the blame for last year’s 4-12 record, has played a big role in the running game’s resurgence.
While the team drafted left tackle Jake Matthews with the No. 6 overall pick, the most important change may have been on the coaching staff, where former Vikings head coach Mike Tice took charge of the line.
Tice said bluntly that he didn’t find much to like on last year’s film, and he challenged the guys up front to get stronger and show more toughness.
Clearly, they’ve taken his message to heart.
Not only has the running game improved, but Ryan has been sacked just four times. He went down a career-high 44 times last season and took more hits than any other quarterback.
“Having Coach Tice here has helped a lot,” Hawley said. “He has an attitude to him. We’re not playing as individuals, we’re playing as a team.”
Falcons starting to revive the run
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