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How Devonta Freeman, Offensive Line Give Falcons a Complete Offense

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 14:  Devonta Freeman #24 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts after the beating the Seattle Seahawks at the Georgia Dome on January 14, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Sean TomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 19, 2017

It happened late in the third quarter when the Seattle Seahawks blitzed on third down. They were firmly in desperation mode during their divisional-round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons while trailing by 13 points.

Any comeback hope rested with getting a stop and getting it now. And for the Falcons, snuffing out that flame meant calling upon running back Devonta Freeman, a core piece of their offense who's sometimes overshadowed by wide receiver Julio Jones and MVP-candidate quarterback Matt Ryan.

Freeman already had the first down once he caught a lofted short pass about seven yards downfield. Then, the 24-year-old turned and found himself in a place where he feels rather comfortable: the open field.

Or at least as open as Freeman needed to be, because not having a defender within six yards is cavernous space for him. The slippery running back who seems to be controlled by a joystick did the rest, and Seahawks safety Steven Terrell is still looking for his dignity.

Maybe a healthy Earl Thomas makes that tackle and holds Freeman to a more moderate gain instead of the 53 yards he sprinted for to set up another Falcons field goal. But the sight of Freeman juking, cutting and gliding in the open field hasn't been rare at all during the 2016-17 season.

He finished fifth in receiving yards among running backs (462 yards), his second straight year with 450-plus yards as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. His 80 receiving yards also led the Falcons during their win over the Seahawks that advanced them to the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers.

The pass-catching version of Freeman is yet another piece of a passing offense that averaged an incredible 9.2 yards per attempt throughout the regular season, a full yard ahead of the second-place Washington Redskins.

There's a certain sizzle and flare that comes with Ryan's deep heaves. They draw our attention and lead to perfectly good adult beverages getting spilled in fine football-watching establishments when he connects deep with Jones. But while that doesn't get old, it's not new either.

What is new, and what's elevated the Falcons offense to championship-contending status, is the gradual emergence of both a multi-faceted backfield and an offensive line that allows it to thrive.

Freeman provides the speed and jitterbug highlights, while fellow running back Tevin Coleman brings the power and pain. Toss in development along the offensive line and one key addition, and the Falcons' rushing rise has become a separating and steamrolling force.

Falcons regular-season rushing in 2016 vs. 2015
YearRushing yards/gameRushing yards/carryRushing TDs
2016120.54.620
2015100.43.813
Source: NFL.com

 

The addition was center Alex Mack, who has been worth every one of the many, many dimes the Falcons gave him in the offseason. Mack was signed to a five-year, $45 million contract, and $28.5 million of that is guaranteed. The guaranteed portion of that deal is the highest among all NFL centers, according to Spotrac.

Mack has promptly repaid the Falcons by anchoring one of the league's best run-blocking offensive lines. 

The Dallas Cowboys' offensive line, led by its three Pro Bowlers, rightfully received plenty of attention in 2016. And praise was heaped on the Tennessee Titans' offensive line, too, because of its emerging young talent.

Meanwhile, with Mack sliding in, left tackle Jake Matthews continuing to grow in his third season and right tackle Ryan Schraeder also well worth his recently signed $31.5 million extension, the blocking pillars in front of Freeman and Coleman are standing tall and often moving defenders wherever they please.

The Falcons' offensive line blends together strength and mobility, which gels nicely with Freeman's running style. The 5'8", 206-pound running back never lacks for quickness and burst. Where he really thrives as a runner, though, is accelerating after a decisive cut.

That's why stretch plays are ideal. They force the defense to flow toward one side of the field while respecting Freeman's raw speed. Then the aggressiveness of opposing linebackers works against them when a gaping cut-back hole opens up.

That happened repeatedly against the Seahawks, and the league's seventh-ranked rushing defense during the regular season (92.9 yards allowed per game and only 3.4 per carry) was left exposed.

There was often a vast sea of green parting in front of Freeman, which began on his first carry. Freeman sprinted left before taking the handoff from Ryan. The offensive line worked in unison to push in that direction too. Then, as Freeman planted his left foot to cut and push upfield, a warm, welcoming and wide hole opened.

He happily sprinted through it, cutting back to the right as the play drifted to the left. The slightly undersized but still powerful running back only needed to break an arm tackle on his way to an eight-yard gain to begin a Falcons touchdown drive.

Credit: NFL GamePass

There's nothing particularly special about the play design there. A wheel isn't being reinvented by Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan with those cutback runs. Instead, the existing wheel is humming along smoothly.

The effectiveness of the Falcons' rushing attack lies in execution. An improved offensive line works as one cohesive unit, and then Freeman has both the vision and patience to capitalize on the brute-force bullying taking place in front of him.

Another example of the massive canyons available to Freeman came in the third quarter when the Falcons were ahead by nine points and looking to put the game out of reach. On 1st-and-goal from Seattle's 7-yard line, he sprinted in one direction again and then pivoted abruptly (again) while moving against the flow of the play.

When Freeman planted, the hole ahead this time was even more inviting.

Credit: NFL GamePass

 

He surged ahead to gain six of the required seven yards for a touchdown and nearly scored, then finished the job one play later.

The five men in front of him make Freeman's life easier, and their athleticism as blockers fits well with his punishing one-cut style. But the third-year runner isn't just on autopilot behind his offensive line.

Freeman provides another dimension with his tackle-breaking ability that adds yards onto the end of runs. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 96 yards from scrimmage per game throughout the regular season. A lot of his yardage came when the two-time Pro Bowler either fought through tackles or twisted defenders into human pretzels.

Freeman created 34 missed tackles as a runner, according to Pro Football Focus, and added 10 more as a pass-catcher. Usually that would be a solid, though less than spectacular, total compared to his position peers.

But snap-count context is needed, as Freeman was in a platoon with Coleman for much of the season and only on the field for 58.5 percent of Atlanta's offensive snaps. For further perspective, Freeman finished just behind Ezekiel Elliott's 45 missed tackles created as both a runner and pass-catcher, and the Dallas Cowboys running back was given 73 more touches.

That snap percentage makes everything Freeman does pop out, most notably the chunk gains he was responsible for in 2016.

Most runs for 15-plus yards in 2016
Running backCarries15-plus yard carries
Ezekiel Elliott32222
LeSean McCoy23422
Jordan Howard25219
Isaiah Crowell19816
Devonta Freeman22716
Melvin Gordon25416
Source: Pro Football Focus

Freeman's 16 runs for 15-plus yards placed him tied for fourth. His gains on those plays accounted for 37.5 percent of his overall rushing yardage, per PFF, which again placed Freeman fourth in the league.

He can rip off long runs while pouncing on the tidy tunnels created for him by one of the league's most aggressive and mobile offensive lines. Coleman can do the same, and the two running backs form the ideal complementary option alongside a fireworks-filled passing offense.

That option was missing in previous seasons, which created a void. Ryan was forced to do too much, too often, and that partly contributed to his turnovers as the veteran forced the ball into narrow throwing windows.

Now the Falcons are fresh off a regular season with a per-game rushing average more than 20 yards higher than it was in 2015—which means that when their stacked passing offense gets a lead, the backfield can then control the clock.

Or the backfield can keep the opposing and also stacked offense off the field, which will surely be the plan against the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is basically a walking meteor at this point. But Rodgers can't hurt you on the sideline, which is where the Seahawks' Russell Wilson found himself often.

The Falcons won the time-of-possession battle against Seattle by nearly seven minutes. That came against a top-10 rushing defense, and the Packers defense finished just one spot behind while allowing an average of 94.7 rushing yards per game during the regular season (eighth). However, that same Packers run defense was just gashed by Elliott for 125 yards on 22 carries.

The focus for the Packers will surely be on Ryan, Jones and their searing-hot connection. But the real separating factor could instead lie with Freeman, Coleman and the five earth-shakers up front.

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