'Gift' to offensive line pays big dividends for the Atlanta Falcons

ATLANTA – The playcalls kept coming in Sunday afternoon. Again and again, the same thing. Run, run, run, run -- 14 straight times during the second half. Each time, Atlanta Falcons right tackle Kaleb McGary got a little excited.

To him, every run play called by coach Arthur Smith is like “a gift.” When the runs are called over his side, like they often were Sunday, it’s an added jolt of excitement.

When the Falcons ran 35 times in a 23-20 win over Cleveland -- 25 of them in the second half -- it was like hitting on the carnival ring toss game so many times in a row you take home the largest stuffed animal possible.

McGary’s prize: An NFL win.

“That was a couple years’ worth of Christmas, maybe,” McGary said. “That’s what we were wanting. We were hoping and praying. Give us a chance. Let us run the ball. Just give us a chance.”

Smith, a former college offensive lineman who wants to run the ball consistently, obliged after three third-quarter drives that went three-and-out, three-and-out and an interception.

Against a Browns defensive line missing three starters, the Falcons needed something different. Smith and his running backs coach, Michael Pitre, decided to insert their practice squad call-up, Caleb Huntley, giving him some work and allowing starter Cordarrelle Patterson, who was playing through a knee injury, a break.

Six yards. Five yards. 14 yards. Nine yards. Four yards. Five carries giving Atlanta production. The third quarter ended. Tyler Allgeier, a rookie fifth-round pick from BYU who had split carries with Patterson in earlier games, came in for two carries totaling 21 yards. Then Huntley for another 6 yards, 5 yards and a drive-capping 5-yard touchdown.

McGary and his linemates dominated. Same with the tight ends, including Kyle Pitts, who takes blocking “personal,” because of all the criticism he has faced around it.

“It’s always, ‘He’s just a receiver. He doesn’t want to block,’" Pitts said. “So when it’s time for me to get in the box and it’s time for us to block and get the running back forward, I take pride in that.”

Huntley, who had one career carry entering Sunday, had put in the work in the offseason, training with his brother at a beach running sand hills and pushing Dodge Chargers, a GMC truck and Infinitis -- five cars in total every other week for two months. Sometimes he pushed cars backwards to strengthen his legs or forward squatting down to make the car go with it stuck in neutral.

“I know I’m going to have big bodies on me and have to push that pile,” Huntley told ESPN. “So I’m simulating pushing the pile by pushing the cars.”

Huntley said he didn’t think about it in the moment Sunday, but knew the lower body work mattered when he thought about it later. It worked on his leg drive and his mentality to push through things, such as Cleveland’s front seven.

“It was a boost, but when I went in, first play, I already had that chip on my shoulder,” Huntley said. “Do whatever I need to do to get the team on the right foot.”

Huntley, an Atlanta native, went to Ball State, signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent last year and spent all season on the practice squad. Came back this year. Cut again. Practice squad again and was called up in Week 2 against the Rams and Sunday against Cleveland.

He’s part of a room of unconventional running backs: The receiver-turned-back leading the room (Patterson), a fifth-round rookie who played linebacker for part of college at BYU (Allgeier), a practice-squad call-up (Huntley) and a cornerback converting to running back (Avery Williams). Damien Williams, the back with the most conventional path, is on injured reserve.

The group has been one of the NFL’s best so far -- twice over 200 yards and fourth in the league with 672 yards after Sunday. Of the team’s 202 rushing yards against Cleveland, Allgeier had 84, Huntley had 56, Patterson 39 and Williams 21. The offensive line mauled. The backs ran hard. It offered Smith playcalling options.

Those 14 straight runs made a statement in Smith’s mind. Atlanta will run the ball, and it’s not going to be an easy group to stop. Not after Sunday, when the Falcons showed they are more than just Patterson in the backfield.

“When the line is running like that, that’s what you call being in the flow,” Smith said. “Proud of those guys. We knew it was going to be a big-boy fight. Seeing all the run attempts and I always thought the team that ran the ball better today was going to win. That held true, thankfully.”

It's something to clearly build on. The Falcons want to have a physical philosophy. They want to be a difficult team to play. It showed that with Patterson the first three weeks of the year. With Patterson not fully healthy Sunday, the Falcons displayed their run game has a lot more than Patterson to turn to.