Since receiving a well-deserved contract extension in August 2017, Devonta Freeman has experienced a multitude of different injuries. He suffered multiple concussions in August and November of that year. After returning in December and carrying the Falcons to crucial victories over New Orleans and Tampa Bay, he suffered MCL and PCL injuries during the playoffs.
Freeman was injured again on opening night against Philadelphia. He nearly missed a month due to a knee injury. His return lasted one game in Pittsburgh, as Freeman injured his groin and needed surgery the following week. The two-time Pro Bowler was wisely put on injured reserve following two gruesome seasons.
For all his injuries, the entire organization remained firmly behind him. Not bringing in serious competition to challenge Freeman for carries validated their intentions of relying on him. Some did question the front office’s decision, especially following the first two games. Freeman wasn’t making defenders miss nor picking up yards after contract.
Although the run blocking was underwhelming, fans have been accustomed to watching Freeman make the most out of not having much space. Not seeing him create something out of nothing drew concerns. Watching Ito Smith produce two impressive runs raised questions about why the second-year back isn’t getting more usage. The pressure was on Freeman going into Indianapolis.
The increasing demand for him to step up was reduced in a matter of one play. That’s all it took for Freeman to accelerate into the open field between Kaleb McGary and Austin Hooper. Give a player of Freeman’s caliber a small pocket of space, and he will make a swift cut into the open field. His vision is always something that should be admired. When the former fourth round pick gets the ball, he is ready to drive and challenge defenders at the second level. That was evident against the Colts, particularly on a 24-yard run to put the Falcons in field goal range.
This run showcased Freeman’s best qualities. The jump cut to get in-between a pulling Jamon Brown and Alex Mack was slick. It allowed him to get into the open field, where he explodes into his second gear. Deep-lying safeties have to be prepared for Freeman to either lower his shoulder viciously or attempt to juke past them. Malik Hooker didn’t look ready for either option, as he was left on the turf watching Freeman blow past him. The run wasn’t over yet with Freeman running through contact to pick up extra yardage. Khari Willis failed to wrap him up, which forced Pierre Desir to make a touchdown-saving tackle.
Freeman received a combined 19 touches (16 carries, three receptions) against the Colts. That’s a sensible number for one of the offense’s biggest playmakers. His agility, balance, power, craftiness, and versatility needs to be utilized. While Dirk Koetter is still struggling to get the best out of a talent-rich offense, he does appear to be fully committed to Freeman. It’s something he needs to continue doing from not only a running standpoint, but also from a receiving standpoint. Splitting him out wide or using him on designed screens are effective ways to generate explosive plays.
The upcoming matchup against Tennessee could present some challenges. Mike Vrabel’s defense is one of the more rugged units in the league. They possess a plethora of talent across the board led by perennially under-appreciated defensive lineman Jurrell Casey. It could be a low-scoring, physical game where Matt Ryan isn’t able to find many big-play opportunities downfield. This is where Freeman’s experience carrying a major workload may be needed. Based on his performance from last weekend, the dynamic back is ready to slash through running lanes, glide past defenders, and finish runs violently.