One of the Atlanta Falcons’ newest additions to the team was received with a significant disparity of compliments and criticism. Most teetered from how his knee injury would affect his playing time to excitement that a University of Georgia star running back had returned to the state. What never was discussed in detail was why the Falcons felt the move would be better than choosing from an obviously talented rookie running back class.
In his five years with the Rams Gurley produced, posting 1100+ rushing yards three times and averaging 12 rushing touchdowns a season.1 2019 was a letdown, especially coming off of the heels of an incredible 2017 and 2018, but now he is relocating to a new offense that will give plenty of opportunity for success.
Since 2015, head coach Dan Quinn’s first year, the Falcons have averaged 100 targets per season to running backs, 23 targets more on average than the Rams in that same time span.1 Gurley is moving into a role where previous Atlanta back Devonta Freeman saw 63% of those running back targets. If that’s not enough, with the departure of Freeman, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper, the Falcons vastly lead the league in vacated targets at 258. His hands have been tested, even in an offense with fewer running back targets, averaging 9.6 yards per reception and a season-high of 788 yards receiving through his time with the Rams.1
While Gurley will make an immediate impact as a proven top rusher and pass catcher, the role he’s most suited to fill has yet to be discussed in detail. In 2019, Atlanta was among the top of the league among several offensive categories: second in plays per drive, fifth in Average Yards per Drive, seventh Lowest in Punts per Drive, fourth lowest in Three and Outs per Drive, and fourth in Drive Success Rate (% of first downs & touchdowns per drive).2 Teams who consistently surrounded Atlanta in these categories were the Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, and the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, some of the most prolific offenses in the NFL. Surprisingly, the Falcons boasted a much better offense than people thought, but there's a reason why that didn’t reflect in their season success or public perception: the Atlanta Falcons were unable to score touchdowns.
Although Atlanta was able to move the ball down the field as well as anyone, they could not score nearly as much, producing a touchdown on only 23% of their drives (their counterparts Baltimore, Kansas City, and New Orleans scored on 37%, 30%, and 29% respectively). Where they were hurt the most was in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on 51% of their attempts, 25th in the league.2 Atlanta would more often have to settle for a field goal, and while this helped fans of Falcons’ kicker Matt Bryant, it did not do the team any favors. So what do you do in that situation? You sign a running back who can change that low rate of scoring.
Gurley was utilized heavily inside the red zone, and - more importantly as a fantasy asset - inside the ten- and five-yard lines. In 2019, he rushed 29 times inside the ten (fifth-most in the league), 15 of those inside the five-yard line. The most significant reason for his prominent role inside the ten was his success on his carries; he tallied 11 touchdowns rushing inside the ten-yard line. This tied him for first in the league with Ezekiel Elliot, Dalvin Cook, and Aaron Jones, and was more than Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry. Atlanta only mustered six rushing touchdowns within the ten-yard line, split up between four different running backs.3 Furthermore, out of Atlanta’s middling 42 total touchdowns in 2019, only 10 were rushing touchdowns (ninth fewest in the league).4 So while Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons will still produce well through the air, Gurley will improve the red zone ground game.
There’s certainly more to this free agency pickup than what meets the eye. While it may appear that an average Atlanta offense is just looking to fill a vacancy, with some deeper digging it’s clear Gurley is stepping into an important role. The Falcons will rely heavily on his talents to get the ball into the end zone, especially in the red zone. With Gurley up to the task, look for him to be a much bigger part of the offense than expected.
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