FLOWERY BRANCH–The numbers suggest that, even as they steamrolled the Giants on Sunday, the Falcons still could not run the ball effectively.
Atlanta’s 3.6 yards-per-carry average against New York (not including kneel-downs by quarterbacks) was worse than its lackluster season average to that point. That number was inflated by some late dashes by Jason Snelling with the 34-0 victory in hand and also is well short of the 4-plus yards per attempt coach Mike Smith considers to be ideal.
Yet Smith looks at what Atlanta’s running game accomplished against the Giants beyond the numbers and declared it a success.
The Falcons opened the game with four straight run calls, netting a touchdown on a short field. They squeezed out rushing yards to stay out of some bad down-and-distance situations. Atlanta also succeeded in keeping the Giants off balance with an assortment of formations, run types and personnel to set up passes.
Not all of that is reflected in the final rushing stats and the Falcons (12-2) remain an inefficient running team with the playoffs on the horizon. But Smith said the ground game served a utilitarian purpose within the offense.
“I thought we set the tempo early with our run game and it goes hand-in-hand when you’re able to run the football,” Smith said. “They have to start committing more resources to the run and it opens up the pass game. We got some looks that we really liked based on running the ball effectively and efficiently in the first quarter of the ballgame.”
It didn’t take long for the Falcons to serve notice they intended to run.
After Asante Samuel’s interception on the day’s second play set Atlanta up at New York’s 16-yard line, running back Michael Turner ran for three yards, eight yards, four yards and finally a one-yard touchdown run.
“It got the team going a little bit, got everybody pumped up,” Turner said. “It started with Asante getting the interception and then we fueled the fire.”
There were some other good moments, highlighted by a 14-yard burst by Turner and an 18-yarder by wide receiver Julio Jones on an end run. But the team also had 10 runs of 2 yards or less, including five runs for no gain or negative yardage.
That was reminiscent of Atlanta’s 23-13 victory against the Saints on Nov. 29, when the Falcons opened the game by running the ball forcefully but couldn’t sustain it. The difference: the entire offense bogged down against New Orleans while the passing game helped carry the Falcons over the Giants.
“We just kept scoring and putting points on the board so everything was fine,” Turner said.
Falcons center Todd McClure said Atlanta’s early success running the ball set the tempo, slowed New York’s vaunted defensive line and opened up the passing game.
“They can’t just get single-minded thinking they are going to rush the quarterback,” McClure said. “It plays a huge role for us up front when you don’t have a (defender) who just has to do one thing and he has to defend multiple things — the runs, the screens, the draws and the pass.”
The Falcons’ ground game lags against the rest of the NFL. They are averaging 3.7 yards per carry, which is better than just two teams. Only Dallas (3.5) averages fewer yards among the teams either in the playoffs or still with a chance to qualify.
While the Falcons want to run more effectively, they can take stock in point production. The Falcons rank fourth in the NFC in total points, fifth in yards per play and their rate of a point scored for every 2.44 plays is better than the 49ers, Seahawks and Packers.
Then there’s also Atlanta’s record, the best in the NFC.
“The (rushing) numbers, I don’t think anybody is too concerned with, from our perspective,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think running the football is important but winning is most important. And finding ways to get it done is, at the end of the day, what we are focused on.”
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