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Featuring Devonta Freeman remains essential for Falcons' offense

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Running the ball effectively and spreading the ball around appears to be Atlanta's motto following two offensive explosions. Devonta Freeman will need to be at the forefront headed into a difficult stretch.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When bitter rivals play against each other, it usually translates into a competitive, hard-fought game. Both defenses are forcing the opposing offenses to claw for every point. In recent years, the Falcons and Saints have managed to contain their respective potent offenses. In 2012, New Orleans was breaking all-time worst defensive records, yet they still beat Atlanta once and managed to keep them under 30 points. The Falcons' defense was atrocious in 2014, but sacked Drew Brees five times in a 30-14 victory that ended up being Mike Smith's final victory as head coach. These expected shootouts rarely translated onto the field.

The long-awaited barnburner finally happened on Monday night. Both offenses were moving the ball without much resistance. Between Kyle Shanahan and Sean Payton, they had the freedom to call any play in their playbook. Payton had success with quick slants and pick plays. Shanahan was content to run the ball, while mixing in his classic play action bootlegs. When they wanted to get tricky, both offensive minded coaches were effective.

Payton called a successful flea flicker on second and fifteen. Shanahan designed a fake toss to Tevin Coleman and used Justin Hardy for a shovel pass. With Mohamed Sanu suffering from a shoulder injury and Julio Jones dealing with a calf issue, they gave an opportunity to one of their more physical wide receivers. It resulted in a touchdown, as the efficient running game proved to be the catalyst for victory for the second consecutive game.

Feeding Freeman

Despite having ten more carries than Coleman (42-32), Devonta Freeman has taken a backseat at times this season. He wasn't on the field during crucial stages of the game against Oakland. The coaching staff preferred using Coleman in a "closer role," and he's been scoring quite a bit.

There has been plenty of discussion about the distribution between both running backs. Nobody expected a true 50-50 split going into the season. Freeman's breakout season showed his well-rounded capabilities as a three-down running back. Coleman made glowing impressions in training camp, yet all signs pointed towards Freeman being preferred in a 60-40 split. That clearly hasn't been the case.

Coleman has been utilized more as a receiver and in the red zone. The results have been mixed, although Shanahan's play calling left him hopelessly on multiple occasions. Featuring Coleman isn't surprising, given his breakaway speed and ability to change directions without slowing down. The second-year running back is clearly a difference maker in an offense that desperately needed more playmakers. Monday night's victory signified that Freeman should remain as the top option in Shanahan's zone blocking scheme.

Yards per carry is one of the more overrated statistics in football, based on the possibility of one or two big runs inflating the number. It usually doesn't reveal how well a running back played, as they could have gained 28 of their 52 yards from two draw plays on third-and-long. That wasn't the case for Freeman last night. His frequent cuts left New Orleans' front seven searching for answers. The former Seminole's vision, balance, elusiveness, and lateral agility were on full display. Running with a more incensed purpose benefitted him as well.

Nobody can ever doubt the dynamic running back's commitment. Freeman is one of the most determined players in the league. With plenty of space in the open field, he took advantage and embarrassed opposing defenders. It started on the offense's second play of the game, as Freeman made Roman Harper whiff and stiff-armed Sterling Moore to the turf. He continued to push the pile on a consistent basis. When the offensive line opened up massive holes, Freeman put Jairus Byrd on ice skates during two instances. The high-priced free safety looked like Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos going in for a slide tackle. Freeman's shiftiness forced linebackers Craig Robertson and James Laurinaitis to chase him ten yards downfield on numerous occasions.

While Coleman's playmaking ability shouldn't be undervalued, Freeman is too valuable to be in a lesser role. A special talent can't be reduced to 15 carries in competitive games. Coleman doesn't run with great balance or vision. On those big runs, it's highly unlikely that he can duplicate what Freeman did. Both running backs have their respective attributes and flaws. Coleman offers plenty of upside, especially on screens and stretch plays. Freeman is the more natural runner, who can turn minimal yardage into substantial gains. How they incorporate both running backs going forward will help determine Atlanta's status as an offensive juggernaut.

Rookies show flashes in another poor defensive performance

The defense didn't have much of a chance against Brees. There was slight improvement from the pass rush, but it wasn't anywhere close to good enough against New Orleans' offense. When they blitzed, it left gaping holes in the middle, where Mark Ingram found success during the entire game. New Orleans averaged close to eight yards a carry on draw plays. From observing the defensive line alignments and overall formation, Dan Quinn's defense looked severely unbalanced.

Quinn continues to devise different experiments with a non-existent pass rush. Attempting to use Dwight Freeney as a defensive tackle shouldn't be included. Why would any defensive coach use one of the greatest edge rushers from the past decade on the inside? You take away his prolific spin move and ability to effectively bull rush by moving him there. There has been enough head scratching decisions between playing Derrick Shelby on the interior and Tyson Jackson as a five-tech defensive end. Playing your best pass rusher at an unfamiliar position is the recent baffling decision, if you don't include left guard Ben Garland playing defensive end on a snap.

The secondary deserves credit for making the most out of a difficult situation. Desmond Trufant limited Brandin Cooks to one catch on five targets, according to Next Gen Stats. Keanu Neal made several open-field plays, which included breaking up a pass intended to Coby Fleener on third down. The defense only needed to make two stops, given the offense's success. They countered that with an actual defensive touchdown, as Brian Poole read New Orleans' pick play intended for Michael Thomas and deflected the pass into Deion Jones' hands. Jones displayed his impressive speed to secure Atlanta's victory. Both rookies have played fairly well so far this season under difficult circumstances. For them to make a game-changing play in a divisional game will only boost their confidence.

Facing greater challenges ahead

After beating a bitter rival in definitive fashion, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Falcons. Ryan looks far more composed under Shanahan's offense. Freeman and Coleman are being pegged as the NFL's best running back duo. Jones was limited to one reception, while Sanu didn't play in the second half. The level of competition does need to be taken under consideration. New Orleans' defense is beyond pitiful at this point.

The next three weeks will match the offense against some of the top defenses in the league. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Brandon Marshall, Bobby Wagner, and K.J. Wright don't miss many tackles or blow assignments. Kawann Short, Von Miller, Cliff Avril, and Michael Bennett will prove to be stern tests. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby form the best cornerback duo in the league. Earl Thomas is the best safety in the league. These are some of the names that Atlanta will be facing during a grueling stretch.

As impressive as the offense looked, you have to wonder how they match up against these top units. Litmus test is a common phrase used for judging teams. It may be only September, but the Falcons are going to face four litmus tests in October, if you include Green Bay. It's difficult to grasp what the ceiling is for this team. Then again, there were major concerns about the season already falling apart following a disappointing opening day loss against Tampa Bay. Two weeks later, the Falcons are in first place, practically ended their division rival's season, and put themselves in a position to be taken seriously.