We’re back! As I’m sure some of you noticed, last week there was no Rushing Report. This week we’re back at it with yet another great installment. If you recall, in my last article I said things were really starting to heat up around the league. I wasn’t lying. Not even a little bit.
The running back landscape in insane right now. Lucky for us, week six presented some great data to unpack for this article. This weeks report will feature the Atlanta Falcons who, following some huge news, have some questions at running back. Like always we’ll dive into some data, usage, and game script from week six to help us break down the Falcons rushing attack going forward. As the kids would say “Esketit”. Ok, I’ll see myself out.
Fantasy Football Rushing Report
For the past three seasons, the Falcons have boasted one of the best backfield tandems in the NFL. 2018 was set to be no different. But it has been. If you haven’t already heard, Devonta Freeman was placed on IR on Wednesday. He struggled to see the field missing four of the first six games to start the season before being shut down. A devastating move for owners who invested some high draft capital in him. In Freeman’s absence, we’ve seen Coleman take over the lion share of backfield duties but Ito Smith has emerged as a presence as well.
There were already questions surrounding the Falcons rushing attack with Smith becoming a factor. Now that Freeman is gone for the next eight weeks, the tandem becomes Coleman and Smith. Now the question becomes, are we looking at a Running Back By Committee? Or will this be a 1A/1B situation similar to years past? Week six may offer owners some insight on how the Falcons plan to use both backs.
Week Six Recap
Last weeks matchup brought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Tampa Bay had been stout against the run so far this season. They ranked fourth in the league against the run but was fresh off allowing 139 yards on the ground to the Bears. A good sign for Coleman and Smith owners. Coleman was set to make his fourth start of the season as Freeman was sidelined with a groin injury. The Bucs opened the game with a scoring drive which set Matt Ryan and the Falcons into pass-heavy mode from the jump.
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) October 14, 2018
The run game looked stagnant from the beginning as Coleman struggled to find any room to produce. Smith didn’t see game action until late in the first quarter. Once he did, both he and Coleman began to split work going into the second quarter. The Bucs front seven held tough until Smith found a hole for a beautiful 14 yard TD run to further the Falcons lead. Despite Smith’s TD run, the Falcons still stuck with a split throughout the rest game.
Gamescript and a strong Bucs defense forced Matt Ryan to toss the rock a ton in the second half. Coleman was able to capitalize on the passing game by catching a six-yard TD on a wheel route in the fourth quarter. Both backs saw an almost complete split. Coleman totaled 38 snaps (56.7%) to Smith’s 31 snaps (46.3%). Neither was productive on the ground though. The Falcons only ran 22 rushing plays the entire game. In this one game sample, there’s no real indicator as to which back is “better”. What we need to do is look at some data to help us evaluate these two a bit better.
What The Data Tells Us
When Devonta Freeman became inactive in week two, the fantasy world thought they would finally get to see Tevin Coleman in a workhorse role. And they did. In week six, however, we saw what he looked like splitting carries again. Even in a pass-heavy attack, Coleman failed to pop off any significant plays outside of his TD reception. He totaled just 10 attempts for 35 yards and one reception for a six-yard TD against Tampa Bay
The heat map above shows that Coleman hasn’t been the most efficient runner through the first six games of the season. However, he isn’t seeing the volume on the ground we thought he would despite being on the field a ton. In his first game without Freeman (week two), Coleman saw a 63.5% of offensive snaps and he made the best of them. He went off for 125 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches. That game seemed to be an outlier though. He’s only topped 17 touches in a game since and hasn’t come close to producing the yards from scrimmage in a game as he did in week two.
An area that Coleman has succeeded the most is in the passing game. In week six he was on the field for far more passing down work than Smith was. He has an aDOT score of 2.80 which means he isn’t just catching short dump offs from a frazzled Matt Ryan. He’s being used in the passing game for a reason. He is clearly the better-rounded back of the two going forward which should keep his usage steady. Coleman has 71 rush attempts for 260 yards and one rushing TD on the ground. He’s also snagged 13 receptions on 16 targets for 105 receiving yards and two receiving TDs on the season.
Smith has been a pleasant surprise in the fantasy world. In week six he showed us he’s worthy of a roster spot on your fantasy team. With Freeman gone, this kid is here to stay now. But don’t get it twisted. It’s not just because Freeman is gone that makes Smith a valuable fantasy option. His play is what tells us that. Smith didn’t exactly blow us away against the Bucs but he did record his third straight game with a rushing TD. The kid just keeps finding the end zone. in week six, he totaled 11 attempts for just 22 yards but had the one rushing TD on the day.
The heat map above shows Smith’s rushing efficiency on the year. As you can see, he’s been slightly better than Coleman at running the ball with his opportunities. After his outing against the Bucs, this looks like a trend that’ll continue. Smith’s snaps per game have steadily risen in Freeman’s absence and in week six he saw his largest % of the year (31/46.3%).
Smith has carved out a role in the rushing attack but has yet to make a dent in the receiving game. That’s not to say Smith can’t catch the ball either. The data just tells us he isn’t being used as a pass catcher in the Falcons offense thus far. Smith has only been targeted in the passing game 11 times and has 10 receptions for 66 receiving yards on the year. Smith will likely continue to be the most effective on the ground. He has 32 attempts for 102 rushing yards and three TDs on the ground this year.
The hype around Tevin Coleman has been quieted by the rise of Ito Smith, and understandably so. But the data and film tell us that both of these guys have a role in the Falcons offense. Much like Freeman and Coleman being 1A and 1B, I see a similar situation unfolding before us. As stated above, Coleman is the better all-around running back and has a ton of experience in the offense. Even with Smith eating into his market share, Coleman has maintained a steady presence for the Falcons and remains the primary passing back. I believe that Coleman continues to make hay in the passing game and be usable in the rushing attack. He gets the slight nod over Smith. Coleman remains a worthy RB2/FLEX option in week seven against a Giants defense that ranks 21st against the run.
Ito Smith has made himself known in the fantasy community. His rushing statistics aren’t eye-popping, yet. But the Falcons continuously give him the ball in the red zone. He now has three straight games with a rushing TD which makes him extremely valuable going forward. If week six was any indication of the workload that Smith is in for, he will be a must-start running back in the coming weeks. Pair that with his touchdown upside and he may end up out snapping Coleman in the near future. Smith is a worthy FLEX this week against the Giants. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
As always thanks for reading and you can hit me up on Twitter @JesseReevesFF. See you next week!