Perhaps the most critical play in the Atlanta Falcons' 21-16 loss to the rival New Orleans Saints on Sunday was a microcosm of the Falcons’ past two months: Running back Todd Gurley II and the run game heading in the wrong direction.
Gurley lost 7 yards on a third-and-2 run from the Saints’ 13-yard line with 1:49 remaining. Quarterback Matt Ryan then threw incomplete on fourth-and-9.
“Gurley saw the bounce look and he took the bounce look,” Falcons coach Raheem Morris said of Gurley’s decision to run wide before being hit by Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and brought down by Saints linebacker Demario Davis.
“You don’t really want to take the bounce look in that situation. He did. He reacted as a football player would do. They were able to get him down around his ankles and get a big-time loss.”
Obviously Gurley should not be singled out for the loss. After all, he gained 8 yards on first-and-10 before being stopped for no gain on second down and thrown for the loss on third down. And Morris explained that the Falcons trusted Gurley in that situation because he is one of the “better red-zone runners in the game.”
But Gurley and the Falcons’ run game have been losing their footing for quite some time now.
After he started strong with his new team in the first five weeks, Gurley has averaged just 2.61 yards per carry since Week 6. That ranks dead last among 78 players with more than 25 carries in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
As a team, the Falcons also rank last in the NFL over that span with 3.21 yards per rush.
Gurley has been dealing with an unspecified knee injury since Week 11 and did not play in Week 12. Morris said they decided to use him “situationally” in Week 13, when he finished with 16 yards on eight carries against a Saints run defense that ranks No. 2 in the NFL this season.
It’s possible that the 26-year-old could get healthier this offseason and still be part of Atlanta’s future plans after his one-year, $5.5 million contract expires. He looked like one of the team’s bright spots early in the season, when he ran for 375 yards and five touchdowns with 4.75 yards per carry over the first five games.
However, the Falcons’ running back situation should be added to a long list of areas this team will need to consider rebuilding this offseason. Backup Brian Hill will also be a free agent.
Another popular topic in the Falcons’ postgame interviews was whether the team still has confidence in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter as a playcaller -- and whether he was right to call all three of those run plays in the first place.
Receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley didn’t complain about that series of playcalls, both giving almost identical answers about how no one would have second-guessed those decisions if the team had executed.
When asked about Koetter, Morris said he remains confident in the team in general -- “and you’ll never separate anybody when you’re talking about team.”
And Ryan said, “I do have confidence” in Koetter, who “does a good job of putting the plan together and putting us in situations to be successful.”
“I think like every week, there's some things he would do differently. And there's things we gotta do differently as players and make plays when the situations present themselves,” Ryan said. “That's how I feel at this point. I feel like we’ve gotta find a way to get the job done.
"I don't think we've played well enough for sure. I don’t think we’ve played up to the standard that we're capable of. And I think everybody needs to look in the mirror and find out what are the things individually we can all do better.”