Each NFL season gives us several players who seemingly come out of nowhere to become stars. In some cases, it is a flash in the pan or one-hit wonder. In others it is the beginning of a successful career. While no final judgments can be made at this point, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman appears to fall into the latter category.
When the Falcons began the season, rookie Tevin Coleman appeared to be the young running back that would shoulder the load for Atlanta’s offense. An injury to Coleman in Week 2 thrust Freeman into the spotlight and he has not looked back.
Prior to Coleman’s injury, Freeman had run for 43 yards and one touchdown. Starting in Week 3, Freeman has rushed for 578 yards and eight touchdowns. He is averaging 5.52 yards per carry in that span and has been held under 100 yards rushing once. If that wasn’t enough, he also has 247 yards receiving and one receiving touchdown.
Freeman has proven to be the perfect running back complement to star wide receiver Julio Jones. His excellent performances have taken heat off the passing game and helped Atlanta to a 6-1 start. Because he does several things well, the Falcons can use him in different ways to exploit what the defense is doing.
The most often way he is used is running the ball both outside and between the tackles. One of the most effective plays the Falcons use is outside zone. On this type of play the offensive line will block to the left or right, depending on the direction of the play. The quarterback will hand off to the running back as he heads to the outside behind his line. When he gets to the outside he chooses what hole to go through. There is no designated hole that he as to go through, which allows him to pick the best spot to attack.
Freeman excels at this play for two major reasons: his speed and cutback ability. He can get through holes before defenders have a chance to close them and also understands which hole will give him the best chance of gaining the most yardage. His excellent cutback move allows him to burn a defense that over-pursues or avoid a hole that closes quickly. Many of Freeman’s big running plays have come on outside zone calls.
Freeman can also run inside and displays excellent power when he does so. The Falcons use him on a host of inside plays, including inside zones and draw plays. His good vision and speed help him hit holes but his power makes him a difficult tackle for defensive linemen and linebackers.
These traits together also make Freeman a good option in the passing game. He can be used on screen passes as well as routes over the middle, adding juice to an already potent Atlanta passing game.
Because of his mix of speed and power, he is difficult to cover out of the backfield. Freeman is a true three-down back who can be on the field in any situation.
Over the past five weeks, Freeman has established himself as one of the most dynamic weapons in the NFL. His physical and mental traits combine to form a running back who can be successful in any situation. The Falcons have done an excellent job of putting Freeman in situations that he can excel and it has paid off. Atlanta looks poised to return to the postseason this season and much of it is thanks to Freeman.