Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines a play from Atlanta RB Ito Smith’s preseason portfolio—a blitz pickup against a Miami Dolphins linebacker.
The Atlanta Falcons have transitioned from the Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman plan that was Kyle Shanahan’s offense (and maintained by Shanahan’s replacement, Steve Sarkisian) to Dirk Koetter’s offense. Although Koetter has had seasons as an offensive coordinator and head coach where he’s opted for committee backfields, he’s also not shy about riding talented runners with feature-back talent.
Doug Martin, Michael Turner, and Maurice Jones-Drew can attest.
The Falcons have told the media since spring that Freeman would be the bell cow and Atlanta will rotate its reserves. It means Ito Smith is unlikely to earn a role with the volume of Coleman circa Shanahan’s offense.
Add to the equation a depth chart of reserves who are pushing Smith for significant playing time in Brian Hill, Kenjon Barner, and potentially, Qadree Ollison, and Smith must maximize every touch he sees during games. While shifty, Smith lacks Hill and Ollison’s power and balance.
Smith is a solid receiver but Hill has notably improved and Barner has more experience as a nickel-down back. Where Smith must stand out or at least not falter, is blitz pickup.
Here’s an example of Smith doing his job and doing it well against the Dolphins. Even for a smaller back, this is the kind of work you want to see against a larger defender.
If Smith continues to perform this well as a pass protector, he should maintain what’s loosely considered the No.2 role as the scatback in Koetter’s scheme. If he can’t, then the surging Hill could overtake him—which could happen anyhow because of Hill’s skill as an interior runner.
If Smith somehow falls apart, which I don’t think he will, the veteran Barner and the powerful and intelligent Ollison aren’t far behind. Most likely, Smith will retain the scatback role as the No.2 option even if Freeman gets hurt and Hill takes Freeman’s touches.
One of the reasons that Smith has depth chart stability is his pass protection.
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