Questions Remain at Fullback

The injury to Bradie Ewing, while not devastating to the Falcons offense, it certainly doesn’t leave it in good shape. The Falcons made the decision to part ways with Ovie Mughelli in May, thanks in large part due to his advanced age and hefty pricetag. They wanted to get younger at the position, and their plans were embodied in Ewing, a player they envisioned growing into a top-notch lead blocker similar to how Mughelli had been the past four years.

But now Ewing is done for the year, and next year will be coming off a more severe knee injury than Mughelli was attempting this year. Mughelli is now with the Rams and they hope there he opens holes for Steven Jackson as well as he did for Michael Turner here in Atlanta.

It’s interesting to gauge how much this will affect the Falcons offense. For the first part of the 2011 season, Mughelli played on a bum knee and it was clear that he was not nearly the same as a blocker. And while Mike Cox was able to fill in competently, it was clear that he was not anywhere close to the Pro Bowl player that Ovie was a year before.

Last year, Cox had 110 total run blocking opportunities (per Pro Football Focus) and ended up with 10 key blocks, making for a percentage of 9.1%. That is essentially equal to the percentage that Mughelli had in 2010, where on 280 run blocking opportunities, he finished with 25.5 key blocks. That was an improvement from Mughelli earlier in the season, who had a key block percentage of around 6.5% (6 key blocks on 93 opportunities). The issue with Cox last year was how often he missed he blocks. He missed a total of 5.5 blocks, for a percentage of 5.0%. That was a decline from Mughelli in 2011 (3.2%), but a huge decrease from Ovie in previous years, where in 2010 his missed block percentage was at 2.1%, and 0.4% in 2009.

The other interesting stat is looking at Turner’s own production when working out of the I-formation. Here are the numbers from the past four seasons:

YearAtt.YdsAvgTDPct. of Total Att.

For the first time last year, there was a clear drop-off in production when the Falcons operated out of the I-formation. It caused them to use the formation much less than in previous years, and it was the first time during Turner’s Falcon career, that he got more carries in single back (132) than he did in I-formation (102).

The scuttlebutt from the spring was that Dirk Koetter’s offense would make less use of the fullback than in previous years. That didn’t make a ton of sense, considering if that was the case, then drafting Ewing in the first place didn’t make a ton of sense. Why draft a fullback if the plan is to marginalize it’s role in the offense? And it also ignored how Koetter used Greg Jones in Jacksonville, who in fact got more playing time in each of the past four years than Mughelli did here in Atlanta.

With Ewing’s injury, it is going to be interesting what the Falcons do to off-set this. Cox was already penciled in as the starter, but it was obvious that a year ago the Falcons didn’t fully trust him because of the fact that he often split reps with Jason Snelling in at fullback, as well as the team’s decision to draft Ewing. It remains to be seen if Cox’s play this spring and summer have bolstered their confidence level in him.

This is not to suggest that the Falcons need to go out and sign another fullback. But it does indicate that the Falcons might have to make some significant modifications to their offense. They may have to run more single back than they originally intended, which is going to put more pressure on the new look offensive line as well as tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Michael Palmer to carry their weight as blockers.

And it boils down to how it affects Turner. It’s all well and good to limit Turner’s carries to try and keep him fresher down the stretch, but he needs to be productive when he does get those carries to begin with. And if last year is any indicator, the I-formation was not very effective for the Falcons offense. Neither party (the team and Turner himself) can afford for a repeat of that this year.

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Aaron Freeman
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