Falcons May Have NFL’s Best Record, But Lack of Running Game Could Keep Them From Playoff Success

The Falcons extended their NFL-best record to 10-1 with a win in Tampa Bay on Sunday. But while the standings may tell you Atlanta is the team to beat in the NFC, some glaring flaws could keep them from realizing their championship dreams.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ passing attack rebounded from the five-interception performance of a week ago, airing it out for 353 yards on the Buccaneers’ defense. Ryan did throw another pick in the win — watching his season total grow to 12 — but his fluid connection with receivers Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White were more than enough to compensate for the mistake.

But the mistakes just continue to pile up for the Falcons.

Two weeks ago, it was a futile defensive effort permitting the Falcons’ first loss of the season. Last week, it was Ryan’s five-pick fiasco. Fortunately, they found a way to win. And on Sunday, Matt Bryant‘s inability to convert on a pair of field goals, including an extra-point sized chip shot, nearly cost Atlanta a win.

Quarterback struggles, a defensive letdown, kicking miscues: These are problems that nearly every team has to face at one point or another throughout the course of a season. While the Falcons have been able to overcome such faults so far this year, there is one glaring issue that continues to cause problems.

Michael Turner is in his fifth season as the Falcons’ primary tailback. But the same guy who was nicknamed “the burner” because of his elusive speed, no longer seems to possess that blazing quickness.

Turner posted better than four yards per carry and 10 touchdowns in each of his first four seasons in Atlanta. But those numbers have seen a serious decline this season, with 3.7 yards per carry¬† — the lowest of his career — and just five scores so far. And things aren’t getting any better as the weeks go on.

Since running off for 102 yards in a win over the Cowboys three weeks ago — just his second 100-yard performance of the year — Turner has gained just 78 yards on 41 carries over the past three games. That sort of production, or should we say lack there of, is problematic. And his inability to establish a productive ground game has Atlanta’s offense looking continually more one-dimensional.

The lack of a running game has also put more pressure on Ryan and the passing game in recent weeks. That may be a factor behind his sudden increase in turnovers, which is important for a guy who threw just five picks in the first eight games of the season and now has seven over the past three alone.

Turnovers are definitely a concern, but what’s even more problematic is that without a running game, the Falcons may be setting themselves up for a playoff disaster once again.

Playoff football is a completely different beast, where short-yardage success is of the utmost importance and a capable running game is needed to achieve it. Atlanta has had their fair share of postseason struggles over the past few years, and will likely find more of the same if Turner or young speedster Jacquizz Rodgers can’t provide a boost on the ground.

The Falcons may be the best team in football on paper, but without a respectable running game they will have a very difficult time getting anywhere near New Orleans in February.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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