Behind Todd Gurley, Falcons still sorting out running back rotation

Falcons running back Brian Hill carries the ball during training camp on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Flowery Branch.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Falcons running back Brian Hill carries the ball during training camp on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Flowery Branch. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

What’s certain is that Todd Gurley will lead the Falcons’ backfield. How the Falcons handle carries behind the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year remains to be seen.

Since the offseason began, there has been an added emphasis placed on running the ball more efficiently. The Falcons ranked 30th in the NFL in 2019 by averaging only 85.1 yards per game, which sparked the team to sign Gurley shortly after he was released by the Los Angeles Rams.

The offense, however, isn’t expected to make Gurley a workhorse back by carrying the ball 25-30 times a game. Last season with the Rams, Gurley averaged 17 touches, which was the same number the Falcons gave Devonta Freeman.

Therefore, there should be opportunities for the backs behind Gurley to be involved. The top two candidates vying for the backup spot are Brian Hill and Ito Smith. Hill, who averaged 7.3 touches in 12 games a year ago, has spent the past two offseasons working on becoming a better pass-catching back. But this year, Hill worked on bettering his agility, whether it was running routes or making defenders miss in the open field.

“I’ve always been working on my hands, since I came into the league,” Hill said. “I feel I’m at the top of my game right now. But another thing is my change of direction with and without the ball. I feel I’ve been running crisper routes. When I get the opening in the run game, I’m making better second-level decisions.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons running back Brian Hill discusses how the running game is coming along.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Hill began the 2019 season as the third running back on the roster but assumed the No. 2 role after Smith went on injured reserve due to a neck injury. Hill totaled 323 rushing yards and two touchdowns, which ranked second on the roster. This week in practice, Hill has repeatedly been the second running back up behind Gurley, which could indicate he’s leading for the role at the present time.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn praised Hill for his performance over the past month.

“One of the guys who has really been a standout for us this camp has been Brian Hill,” Quinn said. “Just the speed, the effort, reading blocks. He’s really pushing it hard.”

But even with Hill being the second back up in recent practices, Smith is still getting his opportunities in the backfield.

“Ito, I thought, has had a good couple of days,” Quinn said. “Oftentimes you’ll see him as a pass-catcher, but he’s got such good change of direction and vision. He’s done a good job in the running area. We’ve still got work to do to get our run game in order but I would say as a position, there are some guys who have experience carrying it who have been sharp in camp.”

For now, it appears Hill and Smith are competing for second-string reps. Second-year running back Qadree Ollison could rejoin the mix once he returns from an injury that has sidelined him over the past week. Ollison was an effective short-yardage back a year ago, totaling four touchdowns in goal-line situations.

With each of the backs offering something different, Hill wouldn’t be surprised to see the coaching staff opt for a committee approach behind Gurley.

“I definitely think we’re going to play with more than two backs this season, just because of the talent we have in the backfield,” Hill said. “Whatever role that’s hashed out, I’m pretty sure we’re all going to do our best to live up to it.”

In practice, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said he’s been impressed with the running game thus far -- citing improvements from the offensive line and backfield. Jarrett said the experience to go with Gurley’s addition should make this aspect of the offense more potent in 2020.

“The guys are definitely gelling together,” Jarrett said. “They’ve got another year together. We’ll have probably one new piece (Matt Hennessy) on the offensive line. They all compete hard every day. We have a new runner in Todd. We’ve got some guys coming back as far as Hill, Smith, Keith (Smith) at fullback. We’ve got some good runners and a good offensive line to make some holes for them. It’s been fun competing against them. I’m trying to give them as much as they can handle every day so it can make them better during the season.”

As most preseasons go, the defense jumped out to a quicker start in early August, which made it tough for the offense to break open some big plays. But over the past couple of weeks, Hill said the run game has started to get going.

With the depth behind Gurley, Hill believes he and the other backs will be able to kick-start the Falcons’ rushing attack in 2020.

“The O-line is getting more and more chemistry each day,” Hill said. “I feel like we’ve been improving on our run game. Every day we have more explosive runs. We started off not getting that many with the defense. Day by day they’ve started to open up. I feel like we’re headed in a good direction.”

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