Falcons’ 2021 season review: Running backs

Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) runs against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) runs against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

Editor’s note: This is the first of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ 2021 season under first-year coach Arthur Smith.

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons went into the 2021 season with plans to have Mike Davis as the lead running back in a committee set-up.

Davis, who played at Stephenson High and South Carolina, was signed in free agency to a modest two-year, $5.5 million deal.

With shaky blocking up front, the plan didn’t work from the start and carries were eventually moved over to Cordarrelle Patterson.

The running game had some moments, but not enough to help sustain the unit and help close out games. The Falcons couldn’t run out the clock in Week 4 against the Washington Football Team and couldn’t against the Lions in Week 16. They needed an interception at the 1-yard line from Foye Oluokun to beat the Lions.

The Falcons finished 31st in the league in rushing at 85.4 yards per game. The Falcons rushed for 95.8 yards per game and were ranked 27th in rushing in 2020.

Davis rush 138 times for 503 yards (3.6 per carry) and had three touchdowns. He caught 44 of 58 targets out of the backfield for 259 yards and one touchdown. He was helpful with his chip blocks in pass protections at times.

The Falcons coaching staff cracked the code on how to use Patterson, who was a former No. 1 draft pick as a wide receiver and one of the game’s top kickoff returners and four-time All-Pro.

Patterson rushed 153 times for 618 yards (4.0 per carry) and six touchdowns. He also caught 52 of 69 targets for 548 yards and five touchdowns.

Patterson signed a one-year contract for $3 million with the Falcons on April 15. A total of $1.7 million was guaranteed.

He had 205 touches for 1,166 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Patterson had career highs in carries (153), rushing yards (618) and receiving yards (548). He tied his career high in catches with 52.

The third back spot was split during the season by Wayne Gallman and Qadree Ollison.

Gallman has 28 carries for 104 yards (3.7 yards per carry) before he was released on Dec. 11. Ollison, who finished the season strong after a stint on the practice squad, had 21 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown.

Ollison also contributed on special teams and had a nifty 19-yard touchdown run in the regular-season finale.

Fullback Keith Smith, who played in all 17 games and had eight starts, was mostly used as a lead blocker. He had nine carries for 31 yards. He caught 9 of 10 targets for 56 yards.

Also, the Falcons must replace running backs coach Des Kitchings, who left to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia.

Patterson is set to become a free agent March 16 if he and the Falcons don’t reach a new deal before free agency starts. Patterson will turn 31 on March 17.

In addition to keeping one of their only weapons, the Falcons must improve the blocking along the offensive line.

“It wasn’t the season we wanted, but we had some good and some bad,” Patterson said. “You know, we just have to keep building off the good and just try to move forward to next year.”

The Falcons missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and had their fourth consecutive losing season. However, Patterson believes the Falcons did lay the foundation for brighter future.

“Just the foundation (Smith) is building and the chemistry that he has with these guys in this locker room on and off the field,” Patterson said. “So, I’d be a fool not to want to play for Arthur. He’s a great, he’s a great coach, a great guy. So, we’ll see what happens.”

Patterson didn’t mind switching to play more at running back.

“Honestly, man, whenever my number is called I’m going to go out there and carry the load,” Patterson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Week One or Week 18.”

He doesn’t have a preference and got used to the extra contact at running back.

“Not now,” Patterson said. “I’m a different beast out there on a football field and like I said no matter how many carries I get, the physical part, just comes with the territory. I love it.”

Patterson was not overly impressed with his “breakthrough” season.

“Honestly, not really,” Patterson said. “I mean, football is football, I guess. People let it get to them too much. But like I said I’ve got to thank the coaches for just giving me a chance. I didn’t play in (exhibition) season so I couldn’t really say about camp. They trusted me not to play me in (exhibition) season games and gave me an opportunity the whole season to go out there and make plays.”

Patterson caught a 50-yard bomb up the right sideline to help the Falcons get into position for the game-winning field goal against New Orleans on Nov. 7. He said that was his favorite moment of the season.

“I had a good couple good catches that week,” Patterson said. “It was fun.

Atlanta Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide Receivers/Tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Special teams

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