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Falcons face major task in rebuilding their running game

December 13, 2018
FILE - In this Aug. 25, 2018, file photo, Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) stretches during warmups before an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, in Jacksonville, Fla. With Freeman injured most of the season, the Falcons have sunk to last in the NFL in rushing. Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith and the offensive line have do little complement the team's high-profile passing attack, and the result is a 4-9 record and a five-game losing streak.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Coach Dan Quinn is not quite ready to look at rebuilding the Atlanta Falcons’ running game for next year.

He’s more concerned with stopping a five-game losing streak that derailed the season and dropped the Falcons (4-9) to the bottom of the NFC South.

But heading into Sunday’s game against Arizona (3-10), there’s no escaping how poorly the Falcons have run the ball. With top back Devonta Freeman injured most of the year and both starting guards on season-ending injured reserve, Atlanta is averaging 81.2 yards per game — last in the NFL.

What’s worse is the Falcons have little depth as they face a difficult task to find three starters in the offseason. With a high pick, they could draft a starting lineman and maybe sign another in free agency, but the backfield situation appears to be a mess.

“I recognize the question that we’re not meeting the mark on that one, but I think it’s unfair to talk about which player is here or not here and those things,” Quinn said Thursday. “We’re really just focused on this game and this matchup.”

Atlanta made Freeman the league’s highest paid running back before the 2017 season, and he’s missed 13 games over the last two years with head, knee and groin injuries.

The Falcons hoped that Tevin Coleman would fill the void, but he only has 559 yards as the team’s leading rusher. Rookie Ito Smith, the next man up, has averaged 3.5 yards on 81 attempts.

Center Alex Mack, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, has found it difficult to build much consistency on the line. He and left tackle Jake Matthews have been the only starters for every game. Five players have started at the guard spots, and Ty Sambrailo replaced Ryan Schraeder at right tackle in last week’s lopsided loss at Green Bay.

“It’s definitely not a point in your favor, but it’s not insurmountable,” Mack said. “We’ve had injuries in the past, and guys have done a really good job of stepping up and performing really well. It is more difficult when that happens and when games are tight and you get behind. You don’t have the luxury of trying to establish the run. You’re going to pass the ball more.”

Quarterback Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, leads a passing attack that ranks fourth, but Atlanta is so one-dimensional that opponents know what’s coming and can tee off on the 11-year veteran. Ryan is on track to get sacked a career-high 46 times.

A vacant run game is the reason why Ryan is being routinely pounded. Even though the Falcons had 124 yards rushing last week, it hardly felt like much of an achievement.

“It’s a big part of what we do and such a big part of our identity that goes with it from the toughness standpoint, the toughness that we like,” Quinn said. “When that’s not aligned right, you feel like our compass is a little off. We’re going to work like crazy to get that thing back to north like we like because without the strong run game, it feels like that part is off.”

Freeman is eligible to return this season, but he hasn’t practiced since Week 5 and probably won’t make it back with playoff hopes all but vanished.

“We’ve just been unlucky this season,” Mack said. “It wasn’t just one guy. It was three guys. You’re just going to have to keep fighting through it.”

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