Falcons’ Freeman primed for expanded role

Rookie running back Devonta Freeman believes he’s ready to take over the rushing load if Steven Jackson does not play against the Carolina Panthers.

“I definitely feel comfortable because I practice every day,” Freeman said. “I try to practice as if I’m the starter every day even though I’m not and I rotate in.”

The Falcons (6-9) play the Panthers (6-8-1) with the NFC South title on the line at 4:25 p.m. on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. The winner advances to the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 4 seed.

Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers took over against the New Orleans Saints after Jackson left the game with a quadriceps injury. Freeman, a fourth-round pick from Florida State, provided some big plays, including a 31-yard touchdown run.

“Devonta’s done a great job for us the entire year,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “He showed on two explosive plays what he’s capable of with the long pass. It showed his versatility there being able to catch a ball out of the backfield. Then, also the type of runner that he is. He’s powerful, but also has that great acceleration.”

With Jackson out, Rodgers had 11 carries for 29 yards and Freeman had five carries for 36 yards and caught three passes for 48 yards, including a 36-yarder when he was flanked out as a receiver.

“I grew a little bit, but there is a lot more room for improvement,” Freeman said. “I just felt like I grew a little bit as far as the playbook and adjusting to the game speed because you know I’ve only been in there on certain plays, but I feel like I developed a little bit in the game.”

Freeman has been working on his blocking in pass protection.

“I have to get better and better every week,” Freeman said. “I think I got better in pass (protection), but I wasn’t (good) enough. That’s one thing that I need to get better at.”

With the Falcons’ playoff hopes on the line, Freeman doesn’t feel that stage will be too big.

“I’ve been playing in big games all of my life,” Freeman said. “I don’t change too much. … I treat every game like it’s a big game. I treat every game like it’s the last game that I’m ever going to play.”

Freeman’s first NFL touchdown run broke open the Saints’ game and gave the Falcons a 20-7 lead. It was an explosive play that has been missing from the backfield since Antone Smith went down with a knee injury against Carolina on Nov. 16.

“The offensive linemen made some great creases for me and I just hit it,” Freeman said. “It was a well-executed play by everybody from the receivers to Matt Ryan checking to it and the offensive linemen creating lanes for me.”

The Falcons like how Freeman has progressed and are confident of his ability to step in.

He has played 201 snaps and rushed 59 times for 235 yards and one touchdown. He has caught 28 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown.

Freeman has been left in pass protection 30 times and has given up one sack and two quarterback hits.

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was selected to the Pro Bowl, is aware of Freeman.

“I played against him in college when he was at Florida State,” Kuechly said. “He’s a great player. He’s kind of like Jacquizz a little bit in the sense that they are quick, they have speed and power, too. They are hard to see behind some of the big offensive linemen. Whether Steven plays or not, they are going to do a good job for them.”

Rodgers will likely get the bulk of the carries because he’s still considered a better pass protector. Also, Jerome Smith was added to the roster from the practice squad. He will be active and may play.

“Jerome’s been doing a very nice job for us on the practice squad, understands our verbiage and our system,” Smith said. “He’ll be an active player this week, in terms of running backs you’ve got to have three of them, so he’ll be up.”

Smith, an undrafted rookie who starred at Syracuse, could see his first NFL snaps.

“We’ve got confidence that if he has to go in the game, he not only understands the running game, but he understands pass protections,” coach Mike Smith said.