Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are rolling thanks to the Falcons' improved running game
During the 2014 season, it took the Atlanta Falcons until Week 10 to secure their third win. So far in 2015, first-year head coach Dan Quinn and his squad are undefeated through the first three weeks. A lot can be said about the connection between quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones, but none of it would be possible without an improved running game.
Yes, Atlanta's defense wasn't good in 2014, and it was a big reason why ownership brought in Quinn, who was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Yes, bringing in a new head coach will create changes in attitude, as FanDuel's own Michael Schottey outlined after their Week 1 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, whether there's a new attitude or a renewed sense of fire within the 53 players on the roster, they also have to be good. By the look of things, the offensive side of the ball has gotten a lot better because the personnel has improved, specifically in the backfield.
We hear it all the time: you must establish the run before getting the passing game going. That's something the Falcons lacked as they limped to a 6-10 record in 2014. For Atlanta to be a playoff team, they normally need both Ryan and Jones firing on all cylinders, and that rarely happened during the same game last season.
A common FanDuel strategy is to stack a QB and WR from the same team to capitalize even more on the points being scored. If you put Ryan and Jones on the same lineup in 2014, you rarely found success since they only combined to score more than 35 points on four different occasions.
Now, 35 points is a lot, but when their combined salary cap hit is over $16,000, that's the kind of production you're expecting. This year, they've already combined to score more than 35 points in each of the first three weeks. Ryan has completed 77-of-116 pass attempts for 946 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, while Jones has caught 34 passes for 440 yards and four scores. While these two always put seem to put up great cumulative numbers, Adam Schefter tweeted that nobody in NFL history has more catches through three games than Jones, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
So, what's changed? You guessed it — the running game.
Atlanta's top three rushers from a year ago were veteran Steven Jackson (707 yards), Devonta Freeman (248 yards) and Jacquizz Rodgers (217 yards). Together, these are the statistics they produced and where those numbers ranked among the other 31 NFL teams:
With a rushing attack that was consistently in the lower half of the league, it clearly wasn't all hard for opposing defenses to plan against. Atlanta's inability to rush the ball consistently meant teams had to do one thing — contain Ryan and Julio. If they did that, they'd probably have a good chance of winning.
Judging by the Falcons' 2014 record, the opposition was successful in doing that.
This year's numbers may not look a whole lot different after these last three weeks, but the on-field results show it's rather significant. Between Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman (who missed Week 3 with an injury), they're averaging just 3.53 yards per attempt, but the attempts per game has grown to 27 and the yards per game has also increased (slightly) to 95. Could that really make a difference in the final score each week? It does when you consider who's lining up behind Ryan.
Jackson was a great rusher during the prime of his career, but that definitely didn't come when he was in Atlanta. He didn't instill any fear in defenses or defensive coordinators, allowing them to fully prepare for the passing attack. Freeman and Coleman are much younger and more dynamic than Jackson ever was with the Falcons, and the threat of them breaking free for a big gain is much more of a concern this time around.
Bringing Kyle Shanahan aboard as the team's new offensive coordinator doesn't hurt, either. He's had a history of turning offenses around because of a more balanced attack, with specific improvements to the running game. Shanahan couldn't turn Johnny Manziel into an instant star with the Cleveland Browns, but he helped put together a pretty decent attack in the backfield.
So, even though the stats don't show huge upticks in production yet (Freeman's 141-yard performance against the Dallas Cowboys certainly helps), being more committed to the run with more talented running backs is already yielding great dividends. If FanDuelers want to thank anybody for the consistently elite production from Ryan and Jones so far this season, they should be sending a couple of edible arrangements to the lockers of Coleman and Freeman.