FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Many factors have contributed to the Atlanta Falcons' woeful running game during the first half of the season.
Poor blocking up front has been the primary issue. Injury factored in, as Steven Jackson missed four games with a hamstring injury. Not to mention the Falcons faced three of the NFL's top-five run defenses in the New York Jets (first), Carolina Panthers (second), and Arizona Cardinals (fourth).
But offensive line coach Pat Hill believes there is another overlooked reason to explain the struggles.
"The run game is a little bit harder for us because we don't get as much of that kind of work in practice," Hill said. "It's very hard in this league to get in a lot of hard run work because you're only in pads one day a week. So for a practice of 70 plays, we might get 15, 20 runs. When you're in full pads, you've really got to take advantage of that and work your pad level and get that down."
Hill is by no means advocating more padded practices. That's the last thing a banged up Falcons team would need at this point. Still, it's difficult to simulate the running game in shorts.
"It's very hard," Hill said. "In college, you're in pads twice a week or three times a week. It's a different game here. If you did that every day with these guys, you wouldn't have a team left at the end of the year.
"We pass protect every day. We're throwing in all sorts of periods. We've got one-on-one pass drills. We can do one-on-one pass protection without pads and get your footwork right, get your assignments right. But in the run game in this league, you've got to play with pad level."
All that being said, Hill -- who has been extremely pleased with the line's pass protection -- expects improvement in the running game during the second half of the season. The Falcons remain last in the league with an average of just 64.4 rushing yards per game. However, Jackson seemed to run with more authority during last Sunday's loss at Carolina while gaining 57 yards on 13 carries -- an average of 4.4 yards per carry. Plus the Falcons are about to face a Seahawks team that has been vulnerable against the run.
"I don't go by stats; I go by yards per carry," Hill said. "We'd like to be over 4. Efficient runs for us are 4 yards.''
The Falcons haven't rushed for 4.0 yards per carry or better since Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins, when they gained 4.9 yards per carry and posted a season-high 146 rushing yards behind Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.
"When you look at stats, a team will have 120 yards rushing and one of them was a 70-yard run. To me, it's the consistency of if you're running the ball on first down, you've got to be second-and-6. If you're second-and-10, you're not being very efficient. If we're going to run the ball on first down, we've got to be efficient in our runs. Then we can run it again or throw it and be in a third-and-manageable situation."
Hill believes his linemen are starting to get the message just based on what he's observed in the meeting room.
"When you can stop the film and say, 'OK, what was wrong with that block? Critique yourself,' and they can start saying it back to you, you know that they know what they're supposed to be doing," Hill said. "Now it's a matter of repeating it over and over again. It takes time."