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Devonta Freeman and Doug Martin square off Sunday

The game today between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons will feature two of the top running backs in the National Football League. Atlanta second-year running back Devonta Freeman leads the NFL in rushing with 621 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Tampa Bay fourth-year rusher Doug Martin is third in the league with 541 yards. Both are currently on three-game streaks of having 100 yards or more rushing. The Falcons are 6-1 and the Buccaneers are 2-4 but winner of Freeman’s and Martin’s individual battle will likely determine the outcome of the game today.

The two backs are very similar in size as well as ability. In addition to their running abilities, both are above average at catching the ball out of the backfield. Freeman is second on the Falcons with 34 catches for 169 yards and one touchdown. Martin has 14 catches for 129 yards and one touchdown receiving. Both are also solid in pass protection, they can run inside the tackles as well as have the speed to get to the edge. The two have also overcome adversity.

It wasn’t certain that Freeman would be the Falcons’ starting running back. He was in a tight battle during the offseason with rookie Tevin Coleman for the starting position and lost. Coleman started the first two games of the season before suffering a rib injury in the second game of the season against the New York Giants.

Freeman started against the Dallas Cowboys, racked up a career-high 141 yards to go with three touchdowns, and hasn’t looked back. The Buccaneers know they will have their hands full with the 5-foot-8, 206-pound Freeman today.

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“I’ve really been impressed with the way he has come along,” said Buccaneers defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. ” I remember watching tape of him a season ago. To see his maturation as a young player, just looking at how far he’s come as a running back, his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, make people miss, even when there’s not a hole there he can create a hole. And then he has the speed to run away from people. He has really come along in his second year to where he’s a featured back adn leading the league in rushing, so I’m very, very impressed.”

Martin, 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, came into camp with a chip on his shoulder. Hampered by injuries the last two years, the Buccaneers did not extend his rookie contract. Thus, in the final year of his deal, Martin is putting up numbers like he did in his Pro Bowl rookie season.

“I think any time you’re facing a back that has the ability to break tackles and cut, that’s when you’re a factor,” said Falcons’ coach Dan Quinn. “And man, does Doug have that. It’s the strength that he plays with, the feet that go on contact. Sometimes in a runner, when you get to the contact, it happens and he goes down. This is just the opposite, where the feet are going and they’re alive on contact. Man, do we have a lot of respect for him. You really have to have your tackling down when you’re playing a back like Doug, because not only can he get his feet going on contact, but he’s got enough explosiveness to make a jump cut to make you miss.”

Now the two will lead their offenses today. Tampa Bay has the league’s fourth-best rushing offense averaging 133.7 yards per game. Atlanta has the second-best run defense allowing 78.6 yards per game. Atlanta will bring the fifth-best rushing offense (129.6) against the 15th rushing defense of Tampa Bay (108.2).

“I think they’re No. (2) in run defense but we look at every defense as a challenge and we’re excited to go over there and show them what we’ve got,” Martin said. “It’ll be a fun matchup. He’s an explosive back. I’ve seen tape on him while watching other film. It’ll be a cool matchup.”

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