Falcons used a combination approach to unlock the rushing attack

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Falcons coach Arthur Smith came from Tennessee with a reputation for running the football.

The Falcons have run the ball 88 times over the past three games and have rushed for more than 120 yards in each game.

The Falcons (6-7) will need to continue to run the ball when they face the 49ers (7-6) at 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. in a game with NFC playoffs implications.

The improved rushing attack has coincided with the shift of carries from Mike Davis to Cordarrelle Patterson as the lead running back.

“Coach (must have) me on his fantasy team, that’s why he gives me the ball so much,” Patterson quipped. “I’m just joking.”

The Falcons rushed for 149 yards against Jacksonville, 121 against Tampa Bay and 128 against Carolina.

“The run game has been productive for us the last couple of weeks,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “It’s something that we’ve continued to hammer away at all season and chip away at it in practice.”

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

The offensive line has received its share of the credit.

“We’ve certainly done a nice job upfront and in the backfield getting that run game going for us,” Ryan said. “It’s certainly going to be another point of emphasis again this week. We’re going against a defense that’s strong and physical. Good linebackers, good front four, and they’re aggressive. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

Patterson has had 16, 13 and 16 carries over those past three games. Davis has had five, four and 11 carries over them.

Patterson rushed for a career-high 108 yards against Jacksonville, 78 against Tampa Bay and 58 against Carolina. Davis added 16, 32 and 44 yards.

Patterson was drafted as a wide receiver by Minnesota, but is playing mostly running back this season for the Falcons.

“I was telling Q (Qadree Ollison) today, that it is hard being a running back,” Patterson said. “At receiver, you are (not) getting hit every play. At receiver, there are some divas out there. Some of them catch the ball and get out of bounds. Some don’t block. They are not getting hit every play. At running back, you’re taking on a hit or getting hit on every play.”

Patterson, now that he’s a full-time running back, understands what the backs have been going through. He talked about a couple of hits that Jeremy Chinn and Shaq Thompson of the Panthers put on him Sunday.

“I love it,” Patterson said. “I’ve got to pay somebody back for those hits.”

Patterson has rushed 122 times for 547 yards (4.5 per carry) and five touchdowns. Davis has rushed 111 times for 382 yards (3.4 per carry) and two touchdowns.

“You know coming in as a free agent, you don’t know what to expect,” Patterson said. “You know my expectations for myself is always high. But you know, in the role I’m coming in and playing right now, it’s awesome. I’ve just got to thank the coaches for getting me involved each and every week. Calling my number and trusting and believing in me for the things I do. I’m much appreciative.”

Ryan, who’s been sacked 26 times, knows the benefit of having a respectable rushing attack.

“It keeps the defensive line out of rhythm,” Ryan said. “When they don’t have the chance to just pin their ears back and know it’s going to be drop-back pass, it makes it more difficult for them when they’ve got to defend both.”

In addition to the 26 sacks, Ryan has been hit 71 times. The run game will be important against the 49ers, who have 33 sacks (ninth most in the NFL).

“They can’t just pin their ears back and go because they’ve got run fits and gaps they have to protect, and that makes a big difference,” Ryan said. “This league is about slowing down those guys on the other side of the ball and finding ways to do that, and running the football has certainly helped with that.”

Despite Patterson suspecting that he’s on Smith’s fantasy team, the Falcons do manage his touches.

“There’s a lot of thought put in,” Smith said. “We do with all our vets. We do what’s best for them. It’s best for the team. That’s where the decision is made with them. It’s a collaborative effort. So some guys at different points in their career, different points of the season ... you have to manage it, and you’ve got to do what’s best you think for the players and for your team.”

Smith also is the play-caller.

“It allows you to try as best you can to keep the defense off-balance,” Smith said. “Simple as that.”

The Falcons have used a variety of blocking systems to help open their rushing attack. They’ve run outside-zone, inside-zone, pin-and-pull and some power plays.

“There’s a lot of nuance,” Smith said. “That’s what I love about this game, and you love that people are passionate about it and care. It’s such a different sport, because there’s so many different variables that can happen on one play.”

Smith equated unlocking the Falcons’ rushing attack to a chess match.

“A lot of really good players out there, and people study really hard at it,” Smith said. “Then there’s a chess match. Then there’s obviously the physical games and then one-on-one matchups, and then you get into those combination blocks. Some people arrogantly think that you can see it all in one play. Again, there’s so many little nuances.”

The mix-and-match approach has provided results. The Falcons have used a combination of powers, angles and technique to create some running room.

“Depends on the scheme and then what’s happening,” Smith said. “I mean, sometimes, you know, if they’re running a pressure, you may catch them in it and a guy kind of takes himself out of the play. In other ones you just see it.

“Especially in some of the short yardage, depending on if you’re using gap schemes coming downhill at somebody. It can be one-on-one like an old-school drill, you know, and see if you can move that man against his will. Depending on that scheme.

“Then you know if you get them out of a gap in some kind of combination of different schemes, but I think if you can see movement, space open up in the run game, usually you’re doing a pretty decent job.”

Running back Qadree Ollison also has pitched in, which led to the release of running back Wayne Gallman. He signed with Minnesota.

“I think you’ll see really all 11 working together,” Ollison of a film study of the 88 running plays. “That was really an emphasis over the last four or five weeks, is that it takes all 11 to run the ball, offensive line, receivers, the fullback, tight ends and even the quarterback.

“Everybody plays a role in the run game. And then just over time, just repetition every single day at practice over and over again. I feel like it’s definitely starting to pay off.”

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Atlanta Falcons schedule and scores

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington 34, Falcons 30

Falcons 27, Jets 20

Bye Week

Falcons 30, Dolphins 28

Panthers 19, Falcons 13

Falcons 27, Saints 25

Cowboys 43, Falcons 3

Patriots 25, Falcons 0

Falcons 21, Jaguars 14

Next four games

Tampa Bay at Falcons, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5

Falcons at Carolina, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12

Falcons at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19

Detroit Lions at Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 26