Ito Smith’s big game part of a ‘long road back’ to Falcons

Ito Smith took the ball and quickly noticed a gaping hole in front of him.

Right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary easily handled their defenders, clearing a pathway 8 yards away from the end zone. Smith, with his low center of gravity, sprinted toward the goal line, squeezed through a much tighter hole and ran through contact while crossing the end zone.

For Smith, the Falcons’ 43-6 win over the Las Vegas Raiders marked his most productive game of not only his season but his career. It also proved to be a long time coming for the third-year back due to the injury he overcame during the 2019 season.

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“This is a blessing,” Smith said. “(It was a) long road back last year, had to sit out half the season. God is good. I’m very blessed to be back. I never gave up. I stayed down. When I got my opportunity I made the best of it.”

Seven weeks into the 2019 campaign, Smith suffered a concussion and a neck injury that put him on injured reserve for the remainder of the year. Unbeknownst to many outside the building, the rehab for the neck injury was long and arduous. The teammates who saw Smith up close throughout the process saw the work he was forced to put in, which made Sunday’s performance against the Raiders that much better.

Smith finished with 12 carries for 65 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. The carries and yards were career highs for Smith.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“He played extremely well,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “As a teammate, you see all the behind the scenes work that he put in, the days where it’s tough. You’re just happy for him to get into the end zone this afternoon.

“That’s why you see such a great response from the rest of the teammates when he got in. Everybody wanted to celebrate with him and were fired up for him. They know exactly how hard he’s worked and everything he’s done the last seven to eight months to put himself in this position.”

As a team, the Falcons totaled 125 rushing yards, which is the fourth-best of the season and the fifth time they crossed the century mark on the ground. But the rushing gains weren’t coming early as the Falcons totaled only 32 yards on the ground at the half.

Smith’s three first-half carries netted only 4 yards.

Smith didn’t see his fourth carry until less than two minutes remained in the third quarter. In a running back rotation that was without Todd Gurley due to a knee injury, Smith stepped into the backfield late in the third quarter and started carving out some big gains.

On a drive starting at the Raiders’ 27-yard line following a Raiders’ lost fumble, Smith took four consecutive handoffs for 19 yards, which led to a Falcons’ field goal. On the Falcons’ next possession, which started at the Raiders’ 35-yard line thanks to another lost fumble, Smith took a first-and-10 carry for 24 yards.

Smith squirted through a hole on the left side of the line, aided by a block from receiver Russell Gage, and then made a couple more defenders miss. He was eventually brought down after a 24-yard gain. Three plays later, Smith ran in his touchdown.

“Ito got in there in the second half and really sparked us,” Morris said. “He rolled off a couple big runs, gave us a couple of explosives. You need those things. When it happens that opens up your pass game and it definitely helps even things out to make you less one dimensional to give you a chance to dictate the terms of the game, which we were able to do this week.”

Smith’s 12 carries nearly doubled the number of carries he entered Sunday’s game with, which was 13. This season, the only time he logged more than two carries in a game was when he had five rushes for 20 yards in Week 2 against the Dallas Cowboys.

Smith is hopeful Sunday’s performance puts himself in position for more carries during the final five weeks of the season.

“Nobody wants to sit on the bench,” Smith said. “When I knew I was up this week and I was getting my chance, I knew I had to capitalize.”

And Smith could get his wish, considering Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris was impressed with how the third-year running back was able to help his team close out the game.

“Any time you play that way you have to say yes,” Morris said when asked if Smith deserved more work on offense. “Ito went out there and there and played well for us. It’s not the first time he’s played well for us. He has in the past so we shouldn’t be shocked. He has the ability to do that. That’s what he does. We should be looking forward to more from Ito.”