When second-year running back Devonta Freeman was rolling, he carried the Atlanta Falcons on his back. Freeman rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the team’s first seven games as the Falcons started the year 6-1 and seemed poised to make a strong run in the NFC.
Freeman was leading the league in rushing when the Falcons first faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was held to 88 yards in a 23-20 overtime loss, snapping a string of three straight games of at least 116 yards. Freeman hasn’t rushed for 100 yards since and sat out last week’s game with a concussion.
The Falcons haven’t won since either. Freeman is scheduled to return in Sunday’s rematch against the Buccaneers. Now standing at 6-5 after four straight losses, the Falcons are hoping the return of Freeman can spark the offense.
“That part is going to be good,” said Atlanta coach Dan Quinn to the Tampa media Wednesday. “He went through all the (concussion protocol) tests and everything. It’s good. He’s a factor. Not just in the run game but out of the backfield, the screen, the passes, so he’s a guy that’s hard to deal with.”
The Falcons need him. Atlanta has not scored more than 21 points in its last six games, including its only win during that stretch, a 10-7 victory against Tennessee. Freeman is ready to go.
“I’m excited to be back out there and just go out there and work hard,” Freeman said. “I think I’m a real competitive person — I just like the grind. I just like to prove to my teammates and my coaches how much I love the game of football and how much I enjoy the grind. As far as frustration, it’s just a process. I couldn’t really control the situation, what happened. I just had to wait. God does things for a reason. I just had to wait and have faith and trust the process.”
The return of a healthy Freeman should also take some pressure off of quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for a season-low 230 yards in last week’s loss to Minnesota. In his last two games, Ryan has thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions and is taking most of the blame for the team’s offensive woes.
“I think it kind of goes with the territory, and we understand those circumstances and we certainly respect and understand,” Quinn said. “Like when it’s really good, he’s the one we’re talking about and when it’s not, it’s where the questions come first. But I can tell you that the guy is an absolute competitor, and we know that hard work still works. His mindset, the attitude to improve and get better and fix the things that he wants to get just right in his game — for those of us who have known Matt, for you guys who cover him and watch him, you know it’s there and we just can’t wait to get back out again.”
Freeman’s return should definitely help Ryan and the offense. The team needs it. Atlanta finds itself in a battle for a playoff spot. Because of tiebreakers, the Falcons are currently in seventh place in the NFC despite having the same record as Seattle (6-5). Both teams are just one game behind Green Bay (7-4) and one game ahead of the charging Buccaneers.
“No doubt we’ve had a tough stretch, a dark place and for us it’s really about the ball,” Quinn said. “That’s when we’re at our best when we’re ball-hawking defensively and getting it back and then owning it on offense. The times that we’ve done that we’ve played well, and the times that we haven’t done that it’s been hard on us. So the mindset for the team, it’s really a tight group and they’re anxious to get back out and play as you’d imagine a competitor would.”
Notes: Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for November. Winston threw for 1,179 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions during the month. Tampa Bay went 3-2 during the month.