For all of the questions surrounding the Falcons’ offense, there were still plenty of certainties going into the season. Some of these certainties feature players that haven’t played up to their high standards yet. That isn’t the case with Devonta Freeman. After being rewarded with a well-deserved payday last month, the star running back continues to perform at an elite level.
Taking a bigger workload over the past two weeks has done wonders for the offense. They have been far more productive since giving Freeman more carries. Improved blocking certainly plays a key role behind the running game’s success, but a strong commitment is required for them to reap the full benefits. Steve Sarkisian deserves credit for being persistent with his balanced play calling.
I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are four noteworthy plays from Freeman’s tremendous performance.
First Quarter: 3rd and 16 at DET 20
It’s rare to see the Falcons use one of their running backs on a vertical route. With the exception of Tevin Coleman lighting up Denver down the seam in the slot last season, both running backs do their damage on short and intermediate passes. Coleman can be isolated outside on slants and rub route designs. It allows them to create space and utilize his ridiculous speed in the open field. Freeman is mostly used on option routes and check downs in the flat.
Keeping Freeman on the field was surprising in this situation. If the offense needs a big-play receiving threat out of the backfield, Coleman is the ideal choice. Sarkisian’s decision ends up working brilliantly, though. Freeman does a nice job selling the route to make Tahir Whitehead hesitate. The nifty stutter step forces Whitehead to lose his positioning. Without making that subtle move, Freeman likely doesn’t create enough separation with Glover Quin lurking around.
The shifty back is always looking to make a defender look silly in the open field. For him to incorporate his crafty running style into how he runs routes shows his capabilities as a complete running back. After faking inside, Freeman gives Ryan a window to make a terrific throw. Withstanding Quin’s ferocious hit puts the cherry on top for this outstanding play.
First quarter 2nd and 10 at DET 27
This is a vintage Freeman run. Not many running backs elevate their offensive line more than him. His knack for creating extra yards in tight areas is remarkable. With his shiftiness and vision, Freeman is capable of making any defender whiff in the open field. It doesn’t even matter if the defender is proper positioned to make the tackle. Look no further than Darius Slay being left frozen on this run.
When Freeman cuts or jukes past a defender, his body control always stands out. There isn’t any drop off in his movement. Freeman knows how to sell the fake and shift away from the nearest defender. It’s not just with his body either. How he uses his head to confuse Slay is also essential in this moment.
Turning three-yard plays into 12-yard gains is a weekly tradition for Freeman. It’s a special trait that most running backs don’t possess in their arsenal. He finishes off the play moving forward in typical powerful fashion, which became a reoccurring theme during the game.
Third quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 25
Dan Quinn preaches about finishing violently on both sides of the ball. When you watch Freeman run, it doesn’t take long to realize he is the embodiment of that phrase. Most smaller running backs look to avoid contact near the sideline. Freeman embraces contact and looks to get the better of every opponent. The five-foot eight running back isn’t fazed by any matchup. That includes meeting a safety head on instead of looking to get out of bounds.
This is another excellent play design from Sarkisian. With Jake Matthews closing down Nevin Lawson and Mohamed Sanu sealing Paul Worrilow, it allows Freeman to find daylight on the left side. The acres of space allows him an opportunity to make something happen. With Miles Killebrew racing in, that leaves him with an easy decision. Lower your shoulder and send a message to the defense.
The Falcons needed to make some type of statement after letting Detroit creep back into the game off multiple uncharacteristic mistakes. Freeman puts Killebrew on his back and stares him down for good measure. Smaller backs aren’t supposed to overpower 225-pound safeties like that. Freeman is a special talent. You can always count on him to set the tone.
Third quarter: 2nd and 2 at ATL 33
On the very next play, Freeman picks up another nice gain. There aren’t any standout moments from this run. It’s a nice example of his understanding on how to find openings and attack them. Wes Schweitzer does a nice job clearing out Haloti Ngata. With Alex Mack making devastating second level blocks on a consistent basis, Freeman found plenty of success against Detroit’s overwhelmed front seven.
This isn’t a difficult hole to find. What Freeman does well comes from staying skinny going through the hole. Some running backs can get reckless and lose their balance after finding an open lane. That isn’t the case with the former fourth round pick. He was made to succeed in a scheme primarily based on using outside zone. It has been a strong start to the season for Freeman. There is no denying his status as a top five running back. With Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and LeSean McCoy either struggling or sidelined, we may see him move past some of them.