Falcons running back Ito Smith talks about the running game. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter.

Ito Smith getting a bigger piece of Falcons’ pie

Rookie running back cashing in on increased workload

He carried the football 11 times for 60 yards Sunday at Green Bay, to lead the Falcons in rushing, and caught three passes for another 14 yards.

The work didn’t add up to a successful day for the Falcons, who lost decisively to the Packers, but given the fluttering ways of the run game this season, the young man from Southern Mississippi qualified as a highlight. 

The Falcons don’t run the ball much, as their averages of 21 carries and 81.2 rushing yards per game both lag the NFL, yet in a season that has become an exercise looking toward the future with hope for brighter days, Smith may be penciling himself into the plans. 

You couldn’t say that at the beginning of the season, when he stood third on the depth chart behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Back then and for most of the season, Smith was hard to find in the locker room. He was ready for reporters Thursday, though, when the Falcons’ second-leading rusher with 281 yards and four touchdowns spoke up.

“I’m way (more) comfortable, just getting that experience, getting out there and getting thrown into the fire,” he said. “I definitely can tell you that I’ve progressed a ton during the season.”

Smith technically is iffy on the injury report with a sore knee and a wonky neck ahead of Sunday’s game, in which the Falcons (4-9) will close their home schedule at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Cardinals (3-10), but the guess is that he’ll play. 

Freeman has missed most of the season, chiefly with a sports hernia that required surgery. He’s not likely to play again in 2019.

That leaves Coleman, who will become an unrestricted free agent in March, and Smith with Brian Hill as a combo tailback/fullback in reserve.

When the Falcons drafted Smith in the fourth round, they probably figured that he might help on special teams and work in that reserve No. 3 role and develop to contribute more one day on offense. Freeman’s injuries have sped up the process, and the 5-foot-9, 195-pound newcomer plays more like Freeman than Coleman. He’s more jittery than rocket-like.

“I would say Ito is best on the inside zone runs,” coach Dan Quinn said. “He can line a (defender) up in the hole and use his change of direction and break a guy off where Tevin often times will toss it outside and see the wide zone and stretch the defense and then try to get a vertical cut. 

“... You’ve seen Ito enough now, it’s his change of direction when a guy is trying to size him up ... where Tevin would try to use the angle and use his speed to break a guy off.”

Smith seems to acknowledge that he’s not as patient as Coleman; he’s not currently inclined to let blocks develop before he commits to a path, and that may be a good thing as blocking has been an issue for the Falcons nearly all season.

He said he would describe his running style thusly: “I want to be that guy that hits the hole, a hit-the-hole guy.”

Smith can catch a ball, too. 

While Coleman is more advanced as a route runner with 41 receptions, an 8.6-yard average and five receiving touchdowns, Ito is more of a check-down option, a bailout for quarterback Matt Ryan when other receivers are covered. He’s caught 25 of 29 targets for a 5.9-yard average.

“We definitely can use him out of the backfield. That’s what I like about the running backs,” Quinn said. “In most instances, especially in our offense and really the NFL today, at running back you better be able to catch.”

Perhaps it’s time for Smith’s route tree to grow.

“It’s just gaining the coaches’ trust, Matt’s trust for the special plays where we’ll go out and do routes,” he said. “It was learning the concepts, and Matt and the coaches trusting that I can go out there and do that, but I always catch.”

That’s not just talk.

In his final three seasons at Southern Miss, he caught 49, 40 and 43 passes for a combined 1,366 yards, seven touchdowns and a 10.3 average in addition to rushing for 1,128, 1,459 and 1,415 yards with 40 touchdowns.

So, perhaps he’ll go deep soon.

“Yeah, maybe,” Smith said with a chuckle.

That’s not about to become his first job. The Falcons need to jump-start their running game if they want to snap their five-game losing streak, and Smith wants to help Coleman crank it up.

“The run game is going to be a big part in that, so we’ve got to get this thing going,” he explained. “ ... We’re just not executing. We’ve got to play better. Go out there and make the plays. We’ve got to execute.”  

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