Falcons showing patience, making changes while building a run game

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone talks about the challenges facing the team as it prepares to battle the Buccaneers.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons’ newfound rushing attack will face the ultimate test against the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense Sunday.

The Falcons (5-6) ran for a season-high 149 yards against the Jaguars on Sunday and will play host to Tampa Bay (8-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The defending Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers are allowing 81 yards per game.

The Falcons entered the season with Mike Davis as the featured back, but have moved to former wide receiver Cordarrelle to carry the load. He rushed 19 times for a career-high 108 yards against Jacksonville.

“We just have got to keep getting better as an offense, and it’ll be different challenges every week,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “You know, obviously this would be a completely different front. A different scheme we’ll play Sunday here in Atlanta. So, we certainly just need to stay balanced, try to keep people off-balance, so you don’t become too one-dimensional.”

Patterson said that Smith went to the offense before that Jacksonville game and demanded that they establish the running game.

“When Arthur (Smith) says something, we take it to heart,” Patterson said. “You know how Art can be sometimes. Love him to death, but we all know how he gets. When Art says something, he’s the head dog in charge. We’re going to go out and execute it.”

Smith didn’t want to share what was said in those “conversations.”

“I’ll keep those private,” Smith said.

Smith was hired as the Falcons’ coach after unleashing a powerful rushing attack with the Tennessee Titans. He had the benefit of Derrick Henry, who became the eighth player to rush for 2,000 yards in NFL history last season.

With the Falcons, Smith and his staff would have to rebuild the rushing attack without a player of Henry’s caliber. He remained patient as the offensive line came together, and they kept working on the unit and the running backs.

“Just from experience, and like I said, it’s a long season,” Smith said. “Things change so much week to week, and there’s progress and you think you’re close. You just keep chipping away at it. There’s some things we tweaked.”

There are several variables to the rushing attack.

“Every game is going to tell a different story,” Smith said. “Yeah, you’re going to look at it cumulatively, but if you can’t improve in this business, if you come out and you start 3-0 and you have 400 yards a game, then all of a sudden you could fall off a cliff, it doesn’t really matter.

“The whole key to this thing is to be able to improve your football game, you know, week by week, month by month. Obviously, there’s obstacles along the way. If you buy into those, and act like it’s broken and there’s no way to fix it, then shame on you. That’s just kind of how I think. So, we’ve been making progress, maybe hadn’t showed up yet in the stats, but felt like we were close.”

The blocking on Patterson’s 12-yard touchdown run was “pretty damn good,” Smith said. He also had a 7-yard touchdown run against the Jaguars.

The offensive line has been working on firing off the ball and sustaining their blocks better.

“It takes all 11 for the run game or the pass game to work,” offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. “So, when you see it and your guys are playing with the speed off the ball, receivers, tight ends, (offensive) linemen and backs hitting it and the quarterback carrying out the fakes. ... We had some good fortune in the run game.”

Ragone hopes the Falcons can duplicate the effort against the Bucs.

“We’re obviously playing a very good run defense and a good defense overall,” Ragone said. “So, it will take all 11 this week, like it did last week.”

The Bucs’ run defense, which is coordinated by Todd Bowles, who started his coaching career at Morehouse, held the Falcons to 55 yards rushing on 20 carries in the 48-25 loss in Week 2 on Sept. 19.

“They are physical,” Ragone said. “They play tough. They play fast. They are very aware of what their calls are, and they don’t make mental (mistakes).”

Tampa Bay’s defensive front is anchored by massive defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh (6-foot-4 and 313 pounds) and Vita Vea (6-4, 347).

“There are some pretty impressive guys up front who are hard to move with some great linebackers, with great speed with a secondary that knows how to fit the run,” Ragone said.

Bowles, the former head coach of the New York Jets, has a reputation for tough run units.

“Altogether, you can see why, not just this year, through the course of him coordinating, why it has been harder to run against him,” Ragone said. “It’s a credit to the coaches for sure, but also to the players, their buy-in. We’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure.”

The Falcons were running a variation of the outside zone blocking scheme that former coordinator Kyle Shanahan used in 2016 on their march to the Super Bowl. But the outside runs that sprung Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman never looked the same this season with the current line and Davis.

With Patterson, the Falcons appear to be using more old-school power formations and blocking techniques to spring him.

Former Falcons offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who coached under Jim Mora, was considered the guru of the outside zone scheme.

“If you go back and look at the history of Alex Gibbs and what I’ve read, and I didn’t know Alex,” Smith said. “Appreciated him from afar. I know people who’ve worked with him. He had a huge impact on the National Football League.”

Gibbs employed smaller linemen who could run from sideline to sideline to eventually tire the defense while cut blocking them at the knees.

“I think a lot of people tried to rationalize Denver’s success, and they were a very physical line and a little bit smaller,” Smith said. “Just a great culture. Obviously, he had success here with the Atlanta Falcons when they were here with Michael Vick and the way they ran the wide zone.”

Patterson, who was drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft by the Vikings as a wide receiver, hopes the Falcons stick with the run.

“Just keep running the ball,” Patterson said. “It’s something that we’ve got to keep doing. We did it last week, why can’t we do it this week. Just keep running the ball. That is just all that there is to it.”

It has been a major project to get the rushing attack off the ground.

“Honestly, we’ve been working so long,” Patterson said. “Finally, it paid off. Honestly, we just hope that we can continue next week, the week after that and the week after that.”

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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, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19

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

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