FLOWERY BRANCH -- The last time the Atlanta Falcons had a 1,000-yard rusher was the 2011 season when Michael Turner scored 11 touchdowns after gaining 1,340 yards on the ground. That was the third season in four where he eclipsed 1,000 yards in a single campaign.
The Falcons finished 17th in the league in rushing in 2011. Prior to that, they were 12th in 2010, 15th the year before and finished second in the NFL in 2008 when Turner notched 1,699 rushing yards and Jerious Norwood added 489.
Since Turner’s final grand season with the Falcons, Atlanta’s rushing attack has been anemic.
From 2012 to 2014, the Falcons averaged just 1,381 yards per season on the ground and never placed higher than 24th on the league’s rushing rankings, averaging a 28th-place finish.
Now that the Falcons have offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who will push the offense away from its heavy pass-oriented tendencies and employ a zone block scheme at the line of scrimmage, the team might be able to climb back toward respectability with its running game.
In his final two seasons with Washington (2012, 2013), Shanahan coached top-five rushing attacks. Last year with Cleveland, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell led a two-headed monster attack on the ground where both runners averaged close to 4 yards per carry.
Shanahan didn’t install many fancy schemes or use tricks to tally yardage, in fact, he typically goes with the same idea repeatedly.
“That’s why we don’t do too many running plays,” Shanahan said last month during Atlanta’s organized team activities. “We isolate in the outside zone, we do it about 80 percent of the time, and we do it over and over and over again. The O-line gets good at it, they create some space. When you do have a back who runs hard and hits the right holes, he can break some tackles, they’re usually successful in it.”
Second-year rusher Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman are vying for the opportunity to hit the right holes more frequently than the other. The competition to be the team’s featured back might be one of the biggest and most open discussions going at the moment.
Both rushers have taken reps with the first team, and each has shown an ability to catch passes out of the backfield. When it comes to one of the most important aspects of succeeding in Shanahan’s offense, the competition seems even, as well.
“It’s just one cut and go; make a guy miss and it’ll be a bigger run than it should be,” Coleman said after Friday’s first camp session. “That’s just part of our game that we’re working on to perfect.”
Coleman said the biggest part of the rushing attack this season will be getting in tune with the offensive line when they’re out in space and finding the right time to cut back against the grain. Succeeding in this scheme will require both runners to read the play in front of them quickly and properly, as well as taking the best hole if and when one opens.
What are they looking for with their reads?
Coleman said his job happens to be moving the linebackers and stretching the play more. Once he gets the middle of the defense spread out before him, he needs a lineman to open a hole. The whole idea sounds simple; and it is in principle. But both rusher and the linemen must be working together for success to follow.
Freeman averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season as a rookie. Coleman pounded out 2,046 yards (7.5 per carry) at Indiana during his final year in college behind what appeared to be a less-than-optimal offensive line. Expect Freeman to improve upon his 148-yard season from a year ago and Coleman to fall back from both his high yardage output and per carry average.
But if both stay healthy, and the yin-yang of running back and offensive lineman goes exactly as Shanahan coaches it, the Falcons could finish in the top half of the league in rushing. With Atlanta’s aerial attack already stockpiled and ready, a pounding running game should make the Falcons a top NFL offense.