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Why Devonta Freeman’s role in the passing game has diminished

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We explain Freeman’s decline and Coleman’s rise in brief.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Most of us anticipated that Tevin Coleman would carve out a larger role in 2016, but it seemed like he would probably do so on the ground, given that Devonta Freeman was one of the league’s most productive pass catching backs last season. Instead, Coleman’s rise has come through the air, where he’s been a bigger (and more productive) target than Devonta.

Thanks to my diligent colleague The DW, we know exactly how many times the Falcons have thrown to both backs, and how successful they’ve been. Coleman has snagged eight passes in total for 120 yards, all of them in the second quarter or later, while Freeman has been the recipient of three passes for just 13 yards. Freeman has not hauled in a catch on third down yet, either.

Why? Philosophically, the Falcons are swinging for the fences in the passing game with much greater frequency, with Ryan averaging 10 yards per pass against his career high of 7.9 yards, which came all the way back in his 2008 rookie season. The team is unlikely to continue at that pace, but it’s not an accident that the team is trying to get the ball downfield to the likes of Julio Jones, Aldrick Robinson, and Austin Hooper this season, and that they’re putting the ball into the hands of Coleman, who has truly phenomenal deep speed.

Freeman showed his reliability a year ago when he reeled in 73 catches for 578 yards and three touchdowns, and while that number was always going to go down after the Falcons stocked up on receiving options, I do think this is just an unusually quiet start for him. The Falcons are going to have times where they want Freeman’s physicality and balance, particularly on relatively short yardage situations on third down, and over time I anticipate you’ll see this balance out a little bit. His lack of usage in the passing game thus far is not an accident, then, but will be dependent on what the offense needs. He’s just no longer the second option in the passing attack, which is a net positive for this offense.

Freeman will still get his targets going forward, in other words, and he’ll certainly get his carries after putting together a very productive second week against Oakland. You shouldn’t be surprised if Coleman is the new preferred option in the passing game, however, with the bulk of Freeman’s value coming from early down rushing work and short yardage opportunities. It’s a new day in Atlanta’s backfield.