There’s euphoria in Atlanta after the Falcons finally won a playoff game during the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era, and they’re now no longer the suckiest bunch of sucks who ever sucked. Nevermind that they deserved to lose yesterday, and nevermind that a vertical, aggressive team melted into a conservative wimp out, with the strategy in the fourth quarter after the lead was cut to six being to slam into the Seahawks’ defensive line twice, and then just assume Matt Ryan could find an opening on third and long against the league’s best corners. Logic lost.
But forget about that, and just let it whither away now. None of it matters as we continue unpacking the divisional weekend, while looking ahead to what should be two equally fantastic championship games this Sunday. FOOTBALL!
Despite their near catastrophe, the surprising emergence of the running game was encouraging for Atlanta, as Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combined for 162 rushing yards after the Falcons had averaged only 87.3 yards per week..
Turner finished with 98 yards on 14 carries, an average of seven yards per carry. To truly grasp the enormity of Turner’s rumbling, we only need to look back at his most recent performances during his year of sucking. Over the last four games of the regular season, Turner logged weeks with just 15 and 18 yards, a stretch in which he had only 125 total yards. It will surprise you to know that if a running back can only accumulate the equivalent of a really good single game for most backs over four weeks, his season was probably pretty horrendous. And look, overall the plodding Turner finished with only 800 rushing yards, a significant departure from his 1,340 yards last year. Most impressively, his per carry average yesterday was 3.4 yards higher than his overall season average.
It was as if his body was replaced with one that has the required parts to move briskly, and break tackles. And yet, if the Falcons intend to beat the 49ers, Turner isn’t the most important running back on their roster.
Hell, he’s not even the lead back.
No, that title belongs to no one. But this is still telling…
Despite leading much of the day, Jacquizz Rodgers played 32 snaps to Michael Turner’s 22. Don’t kid yourself, Rodgers is Falcons No. 1 RB.
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) January 14, 2013
Rodgers — a fifth-round pick in 2011 — is still somewhat of a liability in pass protection simply because of his smaller stature (he’s 5’6″, and 196 pounds). But he’s remained on the field during passing downs, because he’s a frequent target due to his speed in the flats. Rodgers finished fifth overall during the regular season among running backs with 402 receiving yards, which included eight games with 30 or more yards.
We knew about that part of his game, but it’s the other part — you know, the running part — which was surprising yesterday. Rodgers had a career high 64 rushing yards on just 10 carries (6.4 YPC), most of which came on a 45-yard run (also a season and career high). It’s that growing versatility provided by his power running in such a small package that kept Rodgers on the field for over half of the Falcons’ offensive snaps, and 10 more than Turner.
Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis thoroughly enjoy hitting running backs. It’s as though that’s their job, and their entire existence revolves around that singular skill. So we’re all abundantly aware that running against the 49ers this Sunday won’t be nearly as easy. Although Seattle wasn’t too far behind San Francisco in overall yards allowed per game (Seattle allowed 103.1 per game during the regular season, while San Fran finished with 94.2), the difference lies in the chunk yardage given up by the 49ers on the ground, or rather a lack thereof (they allowed 3.7 YPC, while the Seahawks were much worse with 4.5).
Rodgers playing the proverbial lightening to Turner’s thunder could be crucial if the Falcons hope to sustain drives, and it may also help in the effort to open up areas downfield against the fourth-ranked secondary. There’s been an opportunity — albeit maybe a slight one — for the running back who’s good at both catching and running against the Niners defense. Earlier this year Darren Sproles had 65 yards on seven catches, and Reggie bush had 38 yards on five grabs.
Rodgers isn’t Sproles in terms of his catching ability and how often he’s targeted. But if he can even be Bush or Woodhead-like, he’ll be making a significant contribution to an offense that needs to find holes against a defense that allows so very few of them.