Falcons putting trust in young running backs

Two years ago, the Falcons believed they were a running back away from going to the Super Bowl.

So they signed Steven Jackson, who, as it turned out, was a pretty good … photographer.

Some things look good on paper. But the only Jackson images worth remembering were the pictures he took during his world travels and displayed in an art exhibit, which by the end seemed like a far greater passion for him than trying to run over anybody. Concern over proper lighting and F-stops won’t get any team to a Super Bowl.

The Falcons’ running game was a concern again this offseason, but the team chose not to acquire a relatively known commodity in free agency. They passed on Ray Rice and Chris Johnson and everybody else on the wrong side of 29. They went young, and free of marquee value.

The top two names on their depth chart are Devonta Freeman, a 2014 fourth-round pick from Florida State who had a limited role in the offense as a rookie, and Tevin Coleman, a third-round pick this year from Indiana.

Freeman and Coleman were really good in college. But in the NFL, that counts for just slightly more than your Little League participation trophy. The Falcons’ first three games are against Philadelphia, New York and Dallas, not Indiana State, Rutgers and Wake Forest.

“I have a good sense for these guys,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who obviously had a major voice, if not the loudest voice, in the team’s roster rebuild with general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “I don’t worry about the outside and what the experts think. I put all the focus on us and see how good we can get. Thomas and I know our club better than anybody on the outside.”

True. But it’s also understandable that at this stage, with this team, in this city, most observers are skeptical and at the prove-it stage. The Falcons should be improved on the offensive line. The shift to the zone blocking scheme fits the direction of the offense under Quinn and Kyle Shanahan, and the respective skill sets of Freeman and Coleman.

The team had a solid rushing attack for the first three seasons (2008-10) with Michael Turner. But in the last four seasons, their NFL ranking fell to 17th, 29th, 32nd and 24th.

The running game was not productive in the first exhibition game against Tennessee — 65 yards total, 2.2 per carry — but neither Freeman nor Coleman played because of minor hamstring injuries. Both may see action in the next game Friday night against the New York Jets. Coleman didn’t appear to be favoring the leg in practice Tuesday and his speed — he ran track at Indiana — was evident when he broke open a run to the outside.

“It felt pretty good running full speed,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about it at all.”

Coleman played running back, receiver and defensive back at Indiana. Freeman rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his last season at Florida State, but was limited to 65 carries for 248 yards (with 30 catches) in his rookie season. He watched to see what moves the Falcons would make after cutting Jackson.

“I have no control over what the team does, but when they released Steven Jackson, I knew that another running back was going to come in,” he said. “They didn’t bring in another veteran, but they drafted a running back. I expected it. I’m just happy they believe in me.”

Freeman and Coleman both left college following their junior seasons, believing they were ready to make the jump. At least one NFL team and one coach believe they can handle this.

“We had great belief in Devonta and what he could become in this system, and we also believed we could add to it,” Quinn said. “We already knew both had great running ability, but I’m seeing both of them pick up the checks and details in protections. That’s what tells me they’re getting better.”

Meanwhile, Jackson is looking for a team and last month tweeted a picture of the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium with his number “39” projected in the sky above it. It was a cute way to sell himself. Probably better to look at that than the game tape.