Falcons focusing on the finer details to improve run game

Todd Gurley took a carry on a stretch play and darted toward the left side of the field. As a hole started to open between left guard Matt Hennessy and left tackle Jake Matthews, Gurley picked up the speed and sprinted through the open space. He ran for at least a 10-yard gain, igniting a celebration from his teammates and coaches in the process.

This play happened during a drill at Thursday’s Falcons practice and before the team scrimmage was underway. It also happened without any live tackling taking place.

Still, the urgency with which Gurley ran the ball combined with the offensive line’s ability to open that hole was a promising sign for a group looking to improve upon last season’s performance. In 2019, the Falcons ranked 30th in the NFL by rushing for 85.1 yards per game. With Gurley’s addition, the Falcons are hopeful they have upgraded the position. As for the offensive line, it’s a unit that returns six players who started games last season, with left guard still up for grabs. Right now, Matthews, center Alex Mack, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary are penciled in as starters. Hennessy, James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Matt Gono have been competing for the starting left guard spot.

“All of the players here are brought in with the ability to really crush it in this scheme,” coach Dan Quinn said. “It’s going to take rep after rep after rep to see that. How does a block set up for a back? (It’s) the way we sprint off the ball. The analogy I would use is you have to keep doing it over and over and over again. I told the team Usain Bolt didn’t get tired of running straight ahead.

“It’s just the fact that it takes the reps and the times to see certain blocks, see certain formations and the speed at which you do it with. That’s where it really comes to life. It will take a lot of work, but I’m encouraged, certainly, by the group and the progress they’re making so far.”

The first-team offensive line wasn’t the only group to spring a running back for a big gain. The second-team group, featuring Gono at left tackle, left guard James Carpenter, center Sean Harlow, right guard Justin McCray and right tackle John Wetzel, sealed the edge for running back Brian Hill, who took a long run down the left sideline during the scrimmage.

While the offense wasn’t able to meet in person during the offseason, Mack said the line has focused further on specific details when it comes to run blocking.

“To be really good in the run game, it takes all 11 guys on the field and a real commitment to being good at those runs,” Mack said. “As an O-line, we do our part primarily, but it takes all 11. It has to be everyone tied in together in the same system really knowing how to fit things, with what works and feeling that confidence. You need all the confidence in the world to fire off the ball.

“The more reps we get, the more times you’re with those guys, the better you feel and the more accomplished you get and the better you run.”

Running the ball successfully on early downs will be a key component to the Falcons’ success. Last season, the Falcons ranked 28th in the NFL with 182 running plays on first-and-10. And on those first-and-10 runs, they ranked 30th in average yards per carry (3.2). The Falcons also ranked in the bottom 12 in yards gained in situations ranging from second-and-2 to second-and-5. For instance, the Falcons ranked 29th in yards per carry on second-and-5 (28 plays, 1.75 ypc) and 21st on second-and-2 (22 plays, 3.0 ypc).

McGary said the team has placed a greater emphasis on the run game, which would coincide with the need for the offense to get out to faster starts in games. While the Falcons still are in the first week of padded practices, McGary thinks the early results have shown significant progress.

“I think we’ve gotten off to a really good start,” McGary said. “I think we’re all further along than we were last year. I know it’s certainly been a huge bonus to have me and Chris playing together and having everybody back. I am further ahead mentally than I was last year, just having a year to learn. I actually have an idea of what I’m doing now. I think we’ve made some pretty good strides. I’m definitely excited to see how this year goes.”

And as for being able to block for Gurley?

“I think he’s a good back, man,” McGary said. “I’m excited to bust open some holes for him and see what he can do on game day.”