How a rugby drill helped the Falcons become a top rushing offense

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson is eighth in the NFL in yards with 703 and yards per rush (5.0), and ninth in yards per game (63.9). Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- At first it looked a little bit funny and unorthodox, and needed an explanation. Atlanta Falcons running backs coach Michael Pitre was happy to supply one.

Pitre wants his players to understand the why of anything they do, from game plans to practices to meetings. Pitre asked his players to perform a specific drill, not one they do daily, but one with a specific purpose.

It's a drill with different variations, leading to different names. Pitre -- and the people he learned it from -- call it the "rugby drill." In reality it looks like something else: a few seconds of controlled chaos.

The drill itself is simple. Four running backs -- sometimes holding a football, sometimes not -- sprint at each other. If all goes to plan, at the last second, all four backs will jump cut and then sprint away again. After the jump cut, a coach might add a secondary or tertiary move just to practice more things at once.

"It looked cool," said fullback Keith Smith. "But once you hear the logic behind it, it makes sense. Just as far as making tight cuts in compact spaces. You got to have your feet tight, so that's kind of what that is simulating.

"But it is definitely a different drill."

Atlanta doesn't do this drill weekly. But it's a small part of why the Falcons enter Week 13 with the NFL's fourth-best rushing offense (139.3 yards a game) and rank in the top 10 in almost every major rushing category.

Atlanta has a running back in the top 10 in almost every statistical category: Bijan Robinson, who is eighth in yards with 703 and yards per rush (5.0) and ninth in yards per game (63.9). Tyler Allgeier is No. 31 in rushing yards (466), No. 28 in yards per game (42.4) and No. 11 in average yards after contact (2.03).

Pitre started showing the drill on film for a multitude of reasons. Since the drill is different, he wanted his players to have a vision of what it's supposed to look like first. If someone doesn't listen to the instructions of left or right beforehand, it can be ugly.

"One wrong move, it's all going to get messed up," Robinson said. "Everyone has to be in sync."

Robinson saw the drill on social media but hadn't participated before arriving in Atlanta. He immediately saw its value because it trains a combination of footwork, vision, jump-cutting and timing.

Pitre is quick to deflect credit. He doesn't know where it came from, only from whom he picked it up. Pitre discovered it through one of his closest friends in coaching, former Carolina Panthers running back DeShaun Foster, who is now UCLA's running backs coach.

Foster never ran it as a player. He uses it weekly at UCLA and every NFL back out of the Bruins program since 2017 -- the Chargers' Joshua Kelley and Seattle's Zach Charbonnet, among others -- experienced it.

"The key to the drill is everybody has to sprint to the center," Foster said. "Everybody sprints to the center and then you jump cut right or left, whatever direction we decided, and you shouldn't hit each other.

"But if you do hit each other, that means that that guy was going too slow."

It trains while helping pick up on a player's understanding and instincts. Foster learned it from his mentor, now-Las Vegas Raiders running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, when Foster started his career as a low-level assistant at UCLA.

It's a drill Polamalu does often. But he wasn't aware of the impact, how it started to travel through running back rooms. He brought the drill from American Samoa.

"I learned it from the kids from the island," Polamalu said. "The reason why they taught me was because they said that was the drill they did for rugby, so I tagged it 'rugby drill.'"

Polamalu worked at a football camp put on by his nephew, Troy Polamalu, trying to figure out ways to accomplish as many things as possible during practices. The drill offered a lot. It was a better simulation than using bags or garbage cans or cones because it had humans moving with humans.

When Polamalu first saw it, he was awed. Not only did it drill almost every part of a running back's skill set, but it saved time in situations where individual periods could be shortened. Instead of having players go one or two at a time, in theory almost an entire running back room can go at once.

Two reps could turn into six, seven or eight.

"We always talk about sticking your route, sticking your cut, not being too high, being in a good balance, not having a wide base, having a good, strong base and your chest is over your knees," Polamalu said. "All that good athletic vision goes off of this drill and it goes fast."

Polamalu didn't modify much while translating it to college football and then the NFL. He might add another move after the jump cut, often a spin or a second hard plant. He's not sure how many disciples of the rugby drill there are. He knows about Foster and Pitre. When he got to Minnesota as the Vikings' running backs coach in 2017, he watched film to learn his players and was excited to see players running the rugby drill, coached by his predecessor, now-Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski.

It was in Minnesota where he saw the player he believes is the best he's ever seen at the drill: Dalvin Cook.

"It was almost like he was going to run into the guy," Polamalu said. "You're telling him to go right and now he's cutting off the other guy going right and he just, makes a plant and he's to the right before you know it, the left before you know it.

"And that guy that's going left, he better go because he's going to be right on his ass."

Cook proved the point: Treat other backs sprinting at you like the offensive linemen creating the hole or the defenders a back is trying to evade.

There are variations of it, too. When Packers running back AJ Dillon was at Boston College, he was introduced to a similar drill he and his then-running backs coach Brian White called the "chaos drill." It's not the same drill, Foster said, because of the instructions of where to cut beforehand or not. At BC, they did it daily, multiple backs running at the same cone full speed and then making moves as close to the cone as possible, helping with vision and footwork.

"It's unpredictable," Dillon said. "You don't know where guys are going to come off, you don't know when you're going to need to make a cut, so having three, four guys going full speed in close proximity, that first cut you make, everybody's not cutting to the right.

"So you might cut right and somebody on your right might cut left and you've got to cut back and this guy might come and you've got to spin in and spin out."

It might sound like chaos or disorganization, but so often a breakdown in a block or unexpected defender can cause the same issue on a Saturday or Sunday.

"It's definitely different. At first, it's like, it's almost a trust thing, too, because you got to trust that everybody is on the same page," Smith said. "Otherwise, you're going to run into each other, right?

"It's good work. It's definitely good work."

-- ESPN reporter Rob Demovsky contributed to this report.