Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons is tackled by Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half at Lincoln Financial Field on September 6, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Free’s back, and Falcons look to attack

Return of injured running back may help offset defensive losses

The Falcons’ offense has been lethal over the past three games, averaging more points (34.7) than in the record-setting Super Bowl season of 2016, but the Falcons (1-3) won just once in part because the defense keeps taking major injuries and getting strafed. 

There is reason to believe that the Falcons need to score even more with another defensive starter down before a trip to Pittsburgh (1-2-1). Tackle Grady Jarrett will miss out with ankle and knee ailments.

So, adding a two-time Pro Bowl running back sure looks like a big thumbs up.

Matt Ryan sounds happy about it.

“Totally good for us if he’s able to get back out there this week,” the quarterback said Wednesday, before coach Dan Quinn on Thursday stated emphatically that Freeman “is going to play.”

“He’s such a talented player  ... for us out of the backfield in the passing game. He’s a matchup problem.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan talks about the offense and its expectations against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

Nobody is saying anything about a play count for Freeman, nor that he’ll be limited in any way. He’s not sure how much he’ll factor into the game plan along with fellow back Tevin Coleman.

Freeman’s just glad to be free again after injuring a knee in the second half of the season-opening 18-12 loss at Philadelphia.

He could barely stop smiling when he met media for the first time in nearly a month.

In reverse order Wednesday, “I don’t know. I don’t control that. ... I’m just excited to be out here. ...” he said before practice. “I want to be out there. I want to make plays all the time. I want to help the team win.”

Rookie Ito Smith performed admirably in Freeman’s absence, but the Falcons’ offense has been a bit out of balance. 

They’re ranked No. 7 overall in the NFL, averaging 410.8 total yards per game, and No. 4 with an average of 6.5 yards per play.

They’ve been reliant upon the passing game, though, as the running game ranks 21st with a meager 96-yard average on the ground. Part of that is because coordinator Steve Sarkisian has called just 24 rushes per game, No. 20 in the NFL.

Still, Coleman and Smith have as many rushing touchdowns combined, two, as Ryan, who only once before had two in a season.

Freeman scored 11 times by rush in 2015 and again in 16, plus seven more last season.

So, that’s good news as he’s the Falcons’ best approximation of a power back, even as he goes 5-foot-8, 206 pounds.

“I think it adds,” Quinn said. “We definitely left some things out there in the run game ... so Freeman has plenty of experience in the system and is as difficult to tackle as you can imagine. His ability to put his foot in the ground and violently get up the field -- that’s at the core of what we do in our zone schemes. He’s an ideal fit for us.”

Freeman has missed games before, including last season when he was in concussion protocol, and as ever he went a little nuts while sidelined for most of September: “Yeah, especially if you’re a competitor, someone who loves football like myself.”

He used down time to improve and mend via workouts, physical therapy, game study and tape study. He paid extra attention from the sideline and on television to spy the Falcons’ blocking patterns so that he might improve when in pass protection, which is not considered one of his strengths.

“I learned a lot, just learning the offensive line and seeing how they’re blocking,”  Freeman said. “The double teams, how important that stuff is ... being in tune more than I’ve been.”

Quinn suggested that Freeman’s impact may be anticipated as much or more in the passing game as in the run attack.

The former Florida State standout is a gifted route-runner for a back, and the Falcons are not prone to deploy him in a passing situation simply as either a protector or bail-out option receiver. 

He affords more play call options to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian not only as the team’s best power-back option in the run game, but as a viable receiving option in more parts of the passing attack -- somewhat like Le’Veon Bell when he plays for the Steelers. Which he will not Sunday.

“As we go through matchups on certain things we like his matchups,” Ryan said. “On linebackers and safeties, he’s really good for us in that part of the passing game. He brings a unique skill set to the table for us.”

Freeman said he’s not concerning himself with how many plays he’s in for, nor how he’s utilized. He simply looks forward to his opportunity to contribute.

“I’m not about individual stats, none of that. How can I connect and be on point with the offensive linemen and the reads and stuff?” he said of his goals. “I’m in tune with my body and myself so I know when I can be me, just being back out there when I’m comfortable enough. 

“I think right now I’m comfortable enough to get out there. I feel good, I feel explosive. I’m ready to run.”

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