Running into walls

Falcons scrambling to address problems in ground game

Tevin Coleman said he’s not worrying about whether the Falcons’ sub-efficient running attack may dent his pending free agency. No matter how believable that may be, it’s in-line with what everybody is saying about the biggest wart on Atlanta’s four-game ogre, er, losing streak.

“I’m really not thinking about that right now,” the starting running back said this week in the wake of his fourth consecutive game rushing for 18 or fewer yards and second straight going for less than 10. “I’m just thinking about playing my game.”

And the Falcons are trying to find theirs.

Nobody’s looking forward. They’re trying to triage a running attack that has gone backward with multiple wounds.

There have been ineffective play calls, failures to check out of them, running backs missing their lanes, and blocks not made – even by wide receivers.

The Falcons are searching back for keys to previous successes (and failures), head coach Dan Quinn said, because you don’t rush the ball for 71, 80, 26 and 34 yards in consecutive games to land last in the NFL in rushing at 79.0 ground yards per contest and worry about the future.

“We went through the last four games . . . to say which looks didn’t we like, which techniques didn’t we like, what do we need to feature more?” Quinn explained. “Then, how do we implement some of those things that have been effective for us?”

You’d like to not to freak out about the present, but there is no one solution here.

“It’s tough because it would be easy if there was one thing you could put your finger at and fix that one thing, move on, and everything would be fixed, but it’s not that,” center Alex Mack said. “It’s a guy here, a guy there, they had a good plan, it’s all these small, little things.”

This brings to mind the game Whack-A-Mole, where a player wields a mallet and tries to smack varmints who keep popping up out of different holes.

The Falcons, though, are both the player and the moles. They’re their own problems and they’re not making enough holes.

There is an obvious starting spot in this dissertation. But the Falcons can’t change it.

Atlanta (4-8) has started five different offensive guards because of season-ending injuries to starters Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco and may start a third tackle Sunday at Green Bay (4-7-1), where Ty Sambrailo might step in for Ryan Schraeder.

Plus, starting running back Devonta Freeman – who went to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and ’16 after rushing for more than 1,000 yards each time – has missed most of the season with injuries. He has 14 carries in two games.

Wounds alone are not the singular bottom line.

Perhaps the flagship example came when the Ravens blew up a fourth-and-1 attempt last Sunday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Rookie running back Ito Smith was smashed almost the instant that Matt Ryan handed him the ball.

As Baltimore defenders crept forward and bunched shoulder-to-shoulder across the middle of the line, that play call probably should have been changed before the snap to a wide toss, a stretch, a short throw to a “hot” receiver . . . something.

Alas, Smith got plowed as left guard Wes Schweitzer, Mack and new right guard Zane Beadles were blasted backward practically into Smith’s lap.

“I think one, from my position, I’ve got to get us into the right spots, the right looks,” Ryan said when asked for a detailed explanation about what needs to happen to jack up the Falcons’ also-run game.

“And then, from other positions, whether it’s blocking technique, angles, tracks for our run game, angles from our wide receivers in outside zone vs. inside zone. ... Those are all little details that create small gaps or bigger gaps or spaces for us to run.”

Well, that about sums it up. The problem is . . . everything.

Many things are different from the Super Bowl season of 2016, when the Falcons’ starting offensive line went unchanged through every regular season game and three postseason games, although Mack played through a broken leg bone in that one.

“It’s definitely been frustrating, but we’ve got to keep on working, we’ve got to keep on coming out there to practice and practicing hard and getting the looks we need to get,” Coleman said.

Mack said, “Injuries hurt. It’s something you prepare for. You have a lot of guys stepping up in practice and OTAs . . . to get reps, but you lose valuable guys who are really good at what they do and it’s going to be difficult to immediately recover.”

This is not a historic situation, yet it’s trending that way.

The Falcons have only five times ever averaged fewer rushing yards in a season – 72.2 in 1989, 74.8 in 1999, 75.9 in 2000, 77.9 in 2013 and 78.1 in 1994.

In those campaigns, they finished 3-13, 5-11, 4-12, 4-12 and 7-9 in the pass-happy run-and-shoot offense of head coach June Jones in 1994, respectively.

Injuries played roles in all of those non-playoff seasons, like when NFL 1998 rushing leader Jamal Anderson went down with a bum knee in the second game of ’99 and wasn’t the same upon his return in 2000.

With all mitigating factors taken into consideration, nothing says that a team has to have an awesome running attack to achieve ultimate success.

The Falcons have led the NFL in rushing three times, in 2004-’06, in large measure because the greatest running quarterback in league history, Michael Vick, supplemented significantly running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett.

Those three teams ranked among the least effective passing teams in the NFL, and after the Falcons fell short of the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game after the ’04 season, they did not come close to postseason glory in the next two campaigns.

“It’s always tough, you know what I’m saying, not getting the running game going, not getting the offensive balance, but we’re still working hard to get that going,” Coleman said.

Yeah, it’d be nice to find the mix again.

Atlanta’s popped the run game twice, going for 170 rushing yards against Carolina and 154 against Washington in their two most impressive wins. They haven’t rushed past 92 otherwise.

“When we’re at our best, we’re running the football and we’re able to create explosive plays off our play-action pass game,” Ryan said. “That starts with getting the run game going.”