Fal­cons face ma­jor task in re­build­ing their run­ning game

The Standard Journal - - NATIONAL SPORTS - By George Henry

Coach Dan Quinn is not quite ready to look at re­build­ing the At­lanta Fal­cons’ run­ning game for next year.

He’s more con­cerned with stop­ping a five-game los­ing streak that de­railed the sea­son and dropped the Fal­cons (4-9) to the bot­tom of the NFC South be­fore this past Sun­day’s game.

But head­ing into the game against Ari­zona (3-10), there’s no es­cap­ing how poorly the Fal­cons have run the ball this year.

With top back Devonta Free­man in­jured most of the year and both start­ing guards on sea­son-end­ing in­jured re­serve, At­lanta is av­er­ag­ing 81.2 yards per game — last in the NFL.

What’s worse is the Fal­cons have lit­tle depth as they face a dif­fi­cult task to find three starters in the off­sea­son. With a high pick, they could draft a start­ing line­man and maybe sign an­other in free agency, but the back­field sit­u­a­tion ap­pears to be a mess.

“I rec­og­nize the ques­tion that we’re not meet­ing the mark on that one, but I think it’s un­fair to talk about which player is here or not here and those things,” Quinn said last Thurs­day. “We’re re­ally just fo­cused on this game and this matchup.”

At­lanta made Free­man the league’s high­est paid run­ning back be­fore the 2017 sea­son, and he’s missed 13 games over the last two years with head, knee and groin in­juries.

The Fal­cons hoped that Tevin Cole­man would fill the void, but he only has 559 yards as the team’s lead­ing rusher. Rookie Ito Smith, the next man up, has av­er­aged 3.5 yards on 81 at­tempts.

Cen­ter Alex Mack, a five-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion, has found it dif­fi­cult to build much con­sis­tency on the line. He and left tackle Jake Matthews have been the only starters for ev­ery game. Five play­ers have started at the guard spots, and Ty Sam­brailo re­placed Ryan Schraeder at right tackle in last week’s lop­sided loss at Green Bay.

“It’s def­i­nitely not a point in your fa­vor, but it’s not in­sur­mount­able,” Mack said. “We’ve had in­juries in the past, and guys have done a re­ally good job of step­ping up and per­form­ing re­ally well. It is more dif­fi­cult when that hap­pens and when games are tight and you get be­hind. You don’t have the lux­ury of try­ing to es­tab­lish the run. You’re go­ing to pass the ball more.”

Quar­ter­back Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, leads a pass­ing at­tack that ranks fourth, but At­lanta is so one-di­men­sional that op­po­nents know what’s com­ing and can tee off on the 11-year vet­eran. Ryan is on track to get sacked a ca­reer­high 46 times.

A va­cant run game is the rea­son why Ryan is be­ing rou­tinely pounded. Even though the Fal­cons had 124 yards rush­ing in the past weeks, it hardly felt like much of an achieve­ment.

/ AP-Phe­lan M. Eben­hack

With Free­man in­jured most of the sea­son, the Fal­cons have sunk to last in the NFL in rush­ing. Tevin Cole­man, Ito Smith and the of­fen­sive line have do lit­tle com­ple­ment the team’s high-pro­file pass­ing at­tack, and the re­sult is a 4-9 record and a five-game los­ing streak.

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