The Atlanta Falcons are having trouble moving the football on the ground this season. Through seven games Atlanta has rushed for 437 yards and is averaging 62.4 yards per carry, both league-worst figures.
What a far cry from recent years when running back Michael Turner seemed to always push his Falcons into the top half of the league’s team rushing charts. But starting in 2012 when Atlanta finished the season ranked 29th in the league in rushing, the front office knew the ground game needed help.
The Falcons released an aging and slowing Turner in the offseason and signed running back Steven Jackson to revitalize the ground attack. Revitalization efforts haven’t been fruitful.
Not only have the Falcons struggled to gain yardage on the ground, over the last three games Atlanta as a team has rushed for just 109 yards total. Two players by themselves—running backs Andre Ellington of the Arizona Cardinals and Zac Stacy of the St. Louis Rams—surpassed 109 yards rushing last week alone.
Part of the problem lies squarely on the shoulders of Atlanta’s offensive line, said head coach Mike Smith to ESPN.com reporter Vaughn McClure.
I don’t believe that we have done it consistently enough in terms of saying we’re running it well, because it’s really not about one guy when you’re run blocking. It’s about the unit up front. They’ve got to work together. They’ve got to see it out of the same eyes. And we just haven’t been consistent. And really, the last three games, it’s really stood out.
Jackson carried the football 11 times in Week 8 against the Cardinals and gained just six yards. He had six running plays where he gained no yards or negative yardage.
In the first quarter Atlanta stacked the line of scrimmage with blockers. Only three players outside quarterback Matt Ryan (shown in yellow circles) weren’t given immediate blocking assignments.
The Falcons had seven blockers on the line of scrimmage to battle five Cardinals linemen and two linebackers. Calais Campbell got off his blocker and nailed Jackson in the backfield.
Looking at the All-22 footage, notice that Lamar Holmes not only doesn’t fully engage Campbell, he pushed the Arizona lineman into Jackson’s running lane, which led to the play’s two-yard loss.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter called out his offensive line Tuesday, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (subscription required).
You’ve got to give your back a chance. If you’re going to run the football, you have to give him good design in the run game. We’ve got to give him a good design of what the plays are and at the point of attack. We’ve got to move somebody.
Later in the first quarter Atlanta brought in offensive lineman Joe Hawley as an extra blocker on the right side (circled) and gave the ball to Jackson to run left behind a lead blocker.
Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett blasted Jackson in the backfield after slipping right by Atlanta right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who barely got any contact on Dockett to slow him down.
Jackson tried to take some of the blame off the offensive line, the AJC reported, by telling reporters that he was still working on his running style and building chemistry with the unit because he’s missed so much time. “We’ve had guys shuffling around up front, and I haven’t been in there as well,” Jackson said.
Right guard Garrett Reynolds, as reported by ESPN.com, said he as well as the rest of the offensive line had to work on technique to fix some of Atlanta's offensive line issues.
Just making sure that you’re getting off on the snap and, if it’s a single block, just making sure you’re having good footwork. If you’re by yourself, good footwork is the key. And if you’re working with your guard or your tackle, you just have to be on the same page.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Atlanta’s offensive line only has one player with a positive rating of greater than 1.0, and that’s Hawley (plus-2.1). But he's only played 44 snaps. Four linemen have negative scores in run blocking: left guard Justin Blalock (negative-1.8), left tackle Sam Baker (negative-3.5), offensive tackle Lamar Holmes (negative-8.0) and center Peter Konz (negative-12.1).
With blocking issues on an individual and a team level, it’s apparent why Atlanta has had so much trouble moving the ball on the ground. But the running game isn’t Atlanta’s only offensive line issue. This unit is having trouble protecting Ryan in the passing game too.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ryan has been pressured 112 times through seven games. Only four NFL offensive lines have allowed their quarterback to be hit, sacked or hurried more frequently than Atlanta’s.
Ryan has done a good job of avoiding sacks (he’s only been sacked 13 times) by getting the ball out quickly, but he’s still under pressure 40.9 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Atlanta’s lack of pass protection was painfully obvious against the Cardinals as he was sacked four times and, according to John Manasso of Fox Sports South, hit 11 times.
There’s no way Atlanta’s 2-5 start to the season can entirely be blamed on the offensive line. But it seems like that particular unit is in the cross hairs most frequently when this coaching staff looks at what went wrong on a given play.
Without some necessary schematic changes and improvement along the offensive line (whether it be due to coaching or each player stepping up), there are not many ways for this offense to reform enough to help this Falcons team improve upon its dismal start.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.