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Falcons roster review: Running backs

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Atlanta’s running backs had a breakout season this year, and they were a major reason for the Falcons’ meaningful success.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The number one source of identity for the Atlanta Falcons offense in 2016 was balance. That meant balance between the run and the pass, balance between different options in both of those, and balance in the way Atlanta attacked teams. The Falcons were anchored by a great duo in the running game that was routinely led out of the backfield by an excellent fullback.

Two-headed monster

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had their best year in just the second year as a duo. Rather than the traditional attack of “thunder and lightning,” the Falcons beat opponents with a combination of speed, quickness, and superb versatility out of the backfield. Coleman acted as another receiver throughout the season and presented amazing mismatches in games like the win in Denver early on, and Freeman was a consistent threat in the passing game coupled with homerun ability in the running game. Together, the two were almost unstoppable.

The most important reason these two had so much success was, other than the play of the offensive line, the extreme care they showed for the ball. Both backs combined for two fumbles all season, one a piece, while last season they fumbled the ball five times—three of which came from Coleman. Atlanta’s co-starting running backs found a tremendous rhythm this season and played a huge role in the team’s historic offensive success.

Unsung hero

Atlanta ran the ball from a lot of different sets this season and had success in almost all of them, but a common theme no matter the personnel grouping or the formation was fullback Patrick DiMarco. DiMarco rated out as the fourth-best fullback in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus and has been a consistently strong force in the running game, earning the highest run-blocking grade in the NFL for fullbacks.

Whether it was an inside or outside run, DiMarco cleared the way for Freeman and Coleman to clean up int he running game. However, he also proved himself as a reliable threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, becoming a slightly bigger target for Matt Ryan as the season went on. The two running backs are great but this running game would not be anything close to what it is without DiMarco.

Backups

Terron Ward filled in throughout the season as injuries struck the Falcons backfield a time or two during the 2016 campaign. He played in five games this season, running for 151 yards on 31 carries. He is not as dynamic or explosive as Coleman or Freeman, but most teams don’t expect their backup running back to be a game-breaker. Ward fits the system very well and did a great job, once again, of filling in when called upon.

Looking ahead

The Falcons offense was dominant this season. They were balanced and multiple and the Atlanta running back corps was a huge factor in that balance and versatility. They had their best season as a unit and Coleman and Freeman are widely viewed as the best running back duo in the NFL.

Atlanta is in great shape for the next season and, assuming they get Freeman’s deal done like they said they would, they should be in good shape for the next few years. With Steve Sarkisian there will obviously be some changes in how they are used but there should be no concern that the changes will be drastic enough to hinder the effectiveness of this unit. Coleman, Freeman, DiMarco, and Ward were excellent this season and Falcons fans have every reason to be optimistic that this will be the case again next year.