Understanding the age-defying running of the Atlanta Falcons' Cordarrelle Patterson

Cordarrelle Patterson established a career high with 141 yards on 17 carries against the Seahawks. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

SEATTLE -- Cordarrelle Patterson dragged his roller bag toward the exit of the visitors locker room inside Lumen Field on Sunday afternoon, a smile on his face bright enough to warrant his decision to wear sunglasses inside.

Teammates were joking around with him, and why not after the start he has had this NFL season, in which the erstwhile wide receiver/kick returner has proven in his second season with the Atlanta Falcons that he is one of the top running backs in the league.

As he walked, he was asked if anything about his play the first three weeks surprised him. He got quiet. Talked about chances in games and with the Falcons in general.

“They really gave me the opportunity and believed in me and just trusted me, you know, with my age,” Patterson said. “Everybody say age affects things, but I’m just here to ball out.”

Age, in Patterson’s case, may not even be a number worth worrying about. Patterson turned 31 in March. By then, most running backs are heading toward the end of long, bruising careers after being hit over and over again.

Patterson isn’t running like that at all. Through three weeks, Patterson is third in the NFL in rushing with 302 yards. Twice this season, he has set career-highs in yardage – in the opener against New Orleans when he rushed for 120 and then Sunday in Seattle, when he set a new career-high with 141.

Patterson is on pace for 1,706 yards rushing this season and while that’s probably not a sustainable pace – he’s averaging just over 100 yards per game at the moment – there aren’t many guys who have done it if he does.

At his age.

Curtis Martin ran for 1,697 yards in his age 31 season. Tiki Barber ran for 1,662 yards and Walter Payton for 1,551. Thomas Jones had 1,402 and Tony Dorsett had 1,307 yards. Of the top 250 seasons all-time, that’s the list.

If Patterson stays healthy and productive, he could be in rare company. When he was told he was second in the league in rushing (now third after Saquon Barkley moved to second Monday night), he first asked “who?” When he was told it was him, that smile flashed again along with a big laugh.

“Honestly, man, I love football so much,” Patterson said. “I don’t think it’s one guy really in this world that loves football as much as I love football. Just like to have fun and enjoy it the way I do.”

It rubs off.

His guys -- everyone who's blocking for him -- are getting some shine, too. He's quick to give all of them credit, from the offensive line, to fullback Keith Smith, to the tight ends and even his receivers. Running, he says, is a little bit of everybody blocking and then him taking the benefits. Which might sound simple. Except it’s not.

“There are certain tracks and stuff like that [to run through],” left guard Chris Lindstrom said. “But we just try and cover those guys up and he has the liberty to make the plays and he does that. He’s so talented that he makes us right a lot of the time.”

Lindstrom sensed this was possible during the spring and in training camp, when the line felt like they were getting off the ball faster than before. Then the Saints game -- where the Falcons rushed for 201 yards -- validated much of their thoughts.

The way the Falcons are running, too, has given Atlanta the balance that gives coach Arthur Smith the flexibility to run as many formations and personnel groupings as he does because Patterson can do almost anything from almost anywhere on the field.

“It opens it up,” tight end Kyle Pitts said. “You have to stop the run, stop the pass and he does a great job running hard, as big as he is.”

That size is key. Not many NFL running backs are 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and can look eye to eye at their offensive linemen. Not many have the speed and vision Patterson does -- going back to his days as one of the league’s premier kick returners -- on a play-to-play basis.

So trying to tackle him, well, it’s different than trying to bring down an ordinary running back. Patterson is anything but.

“He skips leg day so he has little scrawny legs,” Keith Smith said, joking. “But them things be moving and he’ll run through arm tackles and whether you hit him low, high, it don’t really matter because I think it’s just his will power is there and he just has that mindset he’s going to run through anything.”

Patterson, feet away, is quick to clarify that no, he doesn’t skip leg day. How he runs would be evidence of that. Smith, one of his key blockers, is his guy. He’ll joke on him when he can. One thing that’s not a joke is that after 10 years, Patterson has a home and a clear offensive role. And as he leaves the locker room to head toward the bus, he smiles one last time. Does he feel 31?

“Heck no,” Patterson said. “I feel 22.”