Should the Falcons advance to their second Super Bowl on Sunday, when they’ll take on the Green Bay Packers, chances are they’ll look a little like their forebears.
You know, the 1998 Falcons team for whom Jamal Anderson rushed for a franchise-record 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Frequently in the NFL postseason, the better ground game wins, although that wasn’t the case when the Falcons beat Green Bay a few months ago.
Their 90 rushing yards were fairly hard earned that day, and more than half of them came from rarely used reserve running back Terron Ward.
These teams may match each other strike for strike in the passing game in the NFC Championship game, though, and if something like that happens, Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could loom large.
Good thing they’ll be running behind an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked as the No. 1 run-blocking unit in the NFL during the regular season.
PFF ranked the Falcons O-line No. 6 overall, but that run game was anchored by Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, whose run-blocking grade of 91.6 for the season was No. 1 among all centers.
The offseason acquisition of the eight-year veteran as a free agent from Cleveland helped, and he spread knowledge to guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester and tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder.
Only one team in the league had the same five linemen start every game. That’s bigger than the holes these guys opened.
“We give Alex a lot of credit because he was new to this group, but there’s also been a lot of improvement with our guards in Chester and Levitre, and then outside with Schraeder and Matthews,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
“Now, a whole offseason together, a whole training camp, now through the season, you can imagine all those reps they accumulate and the technique that gets sharper and sharper and sharper.”
Schraeder, the right tackle agrees.
“Honestly, I just think everybody’s getting a better grasp of the system,” he said. “There were times last year when I was unsure. But as you get more familiar with something you kind of master the techniques. … I feel like this year we don’t have to worry about the X’s and O’s too much. We just got to go play.”
The big boys up front were rock solid last week against Seattle as the Falcons rushed for 99 yards and a score on 29 carries. In the regular season, the Falcons ranked No. 5 in the NFL in rushing, averaging 120.5 yards per game, and No. 5 in yards per carry, at 4.6.
Green Bay is no slouch against the run, ranking No. 8 in the NFL while allowing 94.7 yards per game.
The guts of the unit are in the middle, where the tackle rotation of Mike Daniels (6-feet, 310 pounds), LeTroy Guion (6-4, 322), Christian Ringo (6-1, 298) and Kenny Clark (6-3, 314) can hold ground.
“They’re stout up front,” said Levitre, the left guard. “Their guys up front are big and strong, and they can hold the point really well.”
Coleman didn’t play when these teams last met. Ward led the way, rushing for 46 yards on just six carries, one for 26 yards. He and Freeman combined for a modest 81 yards that day, when quarterback Matt Ryan added nine.
That might not work, especially if the Packers outrush the Falcons again, although much of Green Bay’s 108-90 edge came because quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke out for 60 yards on six runs.
“One of the things that stands out on tape is the way they finish,” said Matthews, the left tackle.
The Packers won’t play them the same way down-to-down.
“Some defenses are read defenses. Other defenses are penetrating where they just want to attack at the line of scrimmage and kind of react after they get up the field,” Levitre said. “They do a little bit of both.”
The Falcons’ outside-zone blocking scheme may work best to set up a perimeter attack against Green Bay, but they won’t abandon the inside game.
The Falcons watched the Packers’ 34-31 win over the Cowboys last week. They saw Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott go for 122 yards on 25 carries.
“You see it on film. Like against Dallas you see a lot of plays where they double-teamed the guys in the middle,” Levitre explained “They’re good players up front.”