Were the Falcons about to play a fantasy football game rather than the Buccaneers on Sunday, the offensive game plan might be easy to figure out.
Tampa Bay (2-2) has been awful against the pass, ranking last in the NFL while allowing 358 yards per game through the air, while the Bucs stand No. 4 against the run, where they’re giving up just 87.8 yards per contest. Plus, the Falcons’ run game has been notably haphazard to say the least.
Steve Sarkisian will have you know, though, that he doesn’t work in a fantasy world, and the offensive coordinator – like coach Dan Quinn – remain committed to pumping up the rushing attack as the Falcons (1-4) try to climb back into the NFC South race.
“I think the reality of it us, they’ve had two weeks to fix their issues, too, coming off the bye. Again, we can’t lose sight of who we are and how important our run game is ...” Sarkisian said. “If you just going in thinking we’re going to throw it, throw it, throw it, well here comes (defensive tackle) Gerald McCoy, here comes (end Jason) Pierre-Paul ... these guys are good players, and you can’t let them pin their ears back.”
The Steelers did some pinning last week, blitzing the Falcons silly on the way to a 41-17 win in a game in which the Falcons all but abandoned a moribund run game late in the third quarter.
Six sacks suffered later, and Quinn’s beating the run drum as loudly as ever, whether running back Devonta Freeman (bruised foot) is available in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Nevermind that the Falcons ranked No. 26 in rushing with 89.2 yards per game, No. 22 in attempts per game (23.0), and No. 21 at 3.9 yards per rush.
It’s supposed to start with the run, not that that means the Falcons needs to run more often than it passes, but that they need more success when going over land than they’ve had in four of five games so far. That sets up so much else, chiefly the play-action pass.
“It does, because if the run game is as you refer to it – humming -- that’s your first priority on defense. You better really hunker down and stop that,” Quinn said. “It can be demoralizing to a defense if you go over and over and over again, or you think you’re in the right spot and the guy breaks for a long one.
“It’s really important not just to have balance, but for all the other things that they work in concert together.”
More than anywhere, the Falcons need to run the ball more effectively on early downs.
They’ve rushed the ball 54 times on first-and-10, ranking No. 25, and averaged 3.44 yards (No. 24). The Falcons have passed on first-and-10 74 times. An incomplete pass, a short run, a sack, or a stuff causes problems for the chain game.
“Second-and-6 or less, you have everything at your disposal. Run the football, play-action pass, drop back, you can do all you want,” said quarterback Matt Ryan. “When you’re in second-and-10 plus, it’s tough.”
No matter who’s carrying the ball, whether it’s Tevin Coleman, Freeman, rookie Ito Smith or anybody else, the Falcons need more on the ground to keep the offense in balance. That doesn’t mean 50-50 run-pass. It means run effectively enough that the opposing defense will be hard-pressed to load up the pass rush and foul up that part of the attack.
The Falcons rushed for only 62 yards at Pittsburgh on 19 carries, and 20 came on a Freeman run.
Quinn likes to talk about marrying the run game to the pass game.
Right now, the run game has been frequently separated.
“Everything in the run game, it doesn’t matter what your scheme is, it’s at the point of attack. We have to own the point of attack, and the runners have to trust their landmarks and ultimately get ourselves to the second level,” Sarkisian explained. “Right now, we’re not getting to the second level enough. ... Back to the drawing board this week.
That game changes every week. Different run calls find their way onto Sarkisian’s script, and the Falcons don’t emphasize the same plays game over game. So, they practice the run game differently.
“It changes because as far as game plans, not every defense does the same thing. They have different looks, so you have different plays that match up with what they do, and it’s about executing certain blocks and getting good at those certain blocks to be able to make it work,” right tackle Ryan Schraeder said.
“Maybe it’s 4-3, 3-4, it just depends on the defense, really. That’s where it’s huge for us to get consistent with our blocks, and get communication on the same page to make all that work.”
The Falcons should be talking about McCoy. The Bucs’ six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle has menaced the Birds in the past. Plus, linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David can fly.
Don’t look for the Falcons to “throw it, throw it, throw it,” however, because they want to make their run-pass marriage work. When it does, everybody is happier.
“We think we’ve got a good plan up front, but we need our run game to go for the rest of the offense to be what it is. You start talking about the play-action pass, the keepers, the multiple personnel groupings and formations ...” Sarkisian said.
“You kind of have to hunt and peck at times to see the plan, how they’re playing, what we’ve got going and then maneuver your way through a game.”