Falcons hope newcomers help reinvigorate rushing attack

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH - The Falcons’ remade running back situation won’t generate national intrigue. It isn’t a conglomerate of known names, and it probably won’t feature one of the NFL’s leading rushers. But it’s a complementary group the Falcons hope improves upon last season’s unfruitful rushing attack.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith has always emphasized the run, but the Falcons’ rushing offense in his first season was unavailing. They averaged 85.4 rushing yards per game, ranking 31st in the NFL, and 3.7 yards per carry, ranking 30th in the NFL. The offensive line struggles didn’t help matters.

Now, without former franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons will need their run game even more to have any chance of staying competitive. An effective rushing attack would ease the load on new quarterback Marcus Mariota (and perhaps eventually rookie Desmond Ridder) and help control the clock.

The Falcons have a batch of players to evaluate at the position, including multiple newcomers. A committee approach, at least to begin the season, seems inevitable.

“There are a lot of factors to improve the run game,” Smith said. “We feel like there will be healthy competition there, too. As it goes on throughout the (exhibition) season, we’ll make sure that we get those guys enough carries to evaluate them.”

Cordarrelle Patterson is the flashiest player in the backfield, though he’ll be deployed in a variety of ways to maximize his receiving ability, which opens the door for other individuals at the position. Enter Damien Williams, who’s on his fourth team, and Tyler Allgeier, a fifth-round rookie draft pick.

“I feel like we’re very versatile,” Williams said of the team’s running backs. “I think we have everything that you’re looking for in a back with every different guy. Each guy brings a certain style to the game.”

Williams is best recognized for his showing in Super Bowl 54 when he scored the go-ahead and game-icing touchdowns for the Chiefs. Williams had 17 carries for 104 yards, four catches for 29 yards and two scores in that game, arguably the Chiefs’ MVP (quarterback Patrick Mahomes won the official honor).

The Super Bowl was Williams’ last game for over a year as he opted out of the 2020 campaign due to family concerns regarding COVID-19. The Chiefs released him last offseason and he signed with the Bears, who endured a dysfunctional season largely mired by offensive incompetence.

Williams’ individual numbers won’t impress, either. He had 40 carries for 164 yards and 16 catches for 103 yards. His 267 yards from scrimmage was his worst production total since 2015 (201), the second season of his career. Still, the 30-year-old is a trustworthy pass protector – a trait Smith continuously cites as vital – and gives the team another pass catching option out of the backfield. He feels he’s in better shape and reacclimated after a season back.

His wisdom should also help a relatively young offense. Williams joins Patterson and left tackle Jake Matthews as the Falcons’ only offensive players with Super Bowl experience (receiver Auden Tate was with the Bengals last season but inactive during their playoff run).

“With the years I have under my belt, this being year nine, I feel obligated to bring what I’ve learned throughout my years, what I’ve done and accomplished,” Williams said. “And the team being so young, it’s easier because they’re eager to learn and come out here and play the game.”

Offensive coordinator Dave Ragone has already applauded Williams’ leadership.

“(Veterans) have a certain way they do things,” Ragone said. “Younger players are probably going to gravitate to the study habits, the work habits, because the goal of some of these players, obviously, is to play well, but also play for a career. When you see guys who are in this league multiple years, young players will see that. So when you bring a Damien Williams in, he’s going to have that effect. Like CP, guys who’ve been in this league a while. They’re going to affect those younger guys in a more positive way and teach them how to work and how to study. That’s what we expect from those guys when we bring them in.”

The primary youngster in the backfield is Allgeier, who’s the most intriguing of the group because he’s an unknown. He was a day three selection, so expectations are modest, but it should be noted quality running backs are found all over the draft and after it. Allgeier was a workhorse at BYU and a violent, powerful runner. His physicality will be a welcome addition to the Falcons, who’ve emphasized a need to improve that element of their team.

How Allgeier fares on third down, both as a pass catcher and protector, will bear strong influence on his playing time. He’s looked comfortable during the early portion of camp, though that’s without pads in a loose setting.

“Tyler, he’s a very patient back,” Williams said. “It’s good that he’s young and he already has that in his game, to be patient. The more he learns, the faster he’ll get, the more patient he is, he’s going to be an excellent player.”

There are others competing for spots. Avery Williams, a 2021 draft pick, has converted from cornerback to running back. He has value as a special teamer and could prove a player capable of making plays in space. Qadree Ollison, who played sparingly in the second half of the 2021 season, is also vying for a role. There’s intrigue in Caleb Huntley, a 23-year-old from the Atlanta area who spent last season on the practice squad. Huntley has already been praised in camp and he’s even had some first-team reps.

Ultimately, the Falcons feel they’re created a competitive environment with their running backs that should extract the best from each.

“There’s great competition there,” Smith said. “Somebody’s going to have to emerge, and somebody needs to carry the ball. That’s why you saw Huntley out there today. He deserves it. We’ll find the guys that are the toughest that can do it the right way. They’ll go out there and play.”