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Falcons bring a diverse, dominant run game to matchup with Bucs

While Tampa Bay struggles on the ground, Atlanta ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing.
Falcons running back Caleb Huntley (42) dives into the end zone for a touchdown in Sunday's 23-20 win against the Browns. A practice-squad call-up, Huntley had 10 carries for 56 yards in the triumph.
Falcons running back Caleb Huntley (42) dives into the end zone for a touchdown in Sunday's 23-20 win against the Browns. A practice-squad call-up, Huntley had 10 carries for 56 yards in the triumph. [ DANNY KARNIK | AP ]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 8

TAMPA — In the sleek, sophisticated, stick-route world of pro football, they’re operating in the spirit of the wing-T.

OK, the Falcons’ run game isn’t that rudimentary. But when you see an NFL team attempt only 19 passes and win, you get the idea: The Bucs’ upcoming opponent — winner of two in a row — intends to pound it and pitch it, sweep and scramble.

“And (they’re) very hard-headed about it,” said Bucs co-defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers, whose unit surrendered 189 rushing yards to the Chiefs on Sunday. “Everybody’s down in three-point stances, and you know they’re coming off.”

In the post-Matt Ryan era, the Falcons (2-2) have reinvented themselves as unlikely purveyors of ball control and bootlegs. Thirty-first in the NFL in rushing yards per game last season (85.4), they now rank fourth (168.0).

Their 5.1 yards per carry is tied for seventh. In Sunday’s 23-20 win against the Browns, they ran on 14 consecutive plays in one second-half stretch.

“Their run schemes are outstanding, probably one of the tops in the league,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said.

“They’ve got a lot of pieces, and the offensive line is very tough, so they’ve been running the ball on everybody. Considering how we played Sunday, it’s going to be a tough task.”

Even the loss of primary cog Cordarrelle Patterson (knee injury) hasn’t stifled the Falcons’ philosophy.

After Patterson had grimaced his way to 38 yards on nine carries Sunday, the team leaned on practice-squad call-up — and Atlanta native — Caleb Huntley (10 carries, 56 yards, one touchdown) and fifth-round draft pick Tyler Allgeier (10 carries, 84 yards), who spent part of his tenure at BYU as a linebacker.

“They had a 1-2, and ... a 2 and 3 punch, because they keep running the same plays,” Rodgers said.

“It would be different if you said, ‘With Patterson, we run these plays. With Allgeier, we run these plays.’ They’re all running the same plays and they’re getting downhill.”

Toss in the dual-threat dimension provided by former No. 2 overall draft pick Marcus Mariota, and the Falcons find themselves one win from the NFC South lead.

Widely deemed the bridge between Ryan and 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder, Mariota nonetheless challenges defenses with his legs and deep-ball ability. Despite seven turnovers (four interceptions, three fumbles) and a feeble passer rating (76.9) that ranks 28th in the league, he’s fourth in yards per attempt (7.9).

In a season-opening loss to the Saints, he ran for 72 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

“With Marcus, his pocket is constantly moving, whether they’re spreading him out, they’re rolling him,” Rodgers said.

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“Then they will drop him back and throw him deep. But the pocket is constantly moving with him; you’ve got the threat of the option game; that is always a problem. So every defense you call, you’ve got to make sure who’s on the quarterback, who’s on the pitch, then stop the inside zone. So their scheme creates a lot of problems.”

At the least, it poses a unique challenge to a defense coming off its worst performance of the year. Considering the Falcons’ assortment of sweeps, waggles and blocking schemes, the buzz phrase around Bucs headquarters this week has been “eye discipline.”

Otherwise, those eyes might be looking up at the Falcons in the standings.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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