Freeman fighting to rebound from Super Bowl loss, blunder

Like most in the Falcons organization, running back Devonta Freeman is trying to remain upbeat while coming to grips with the team’s historic Super Bowl collapse in February.

In addition to coping with the loss, Freeman is battling through his role in the collapse. He missed a blitz pickup of New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who helped to infuse the comeback with a sack and forced fumble of quarterback Matt Ryan.

“Plays happen in a game, good and bad,” Freeman said. “I just feel like you can’t dwell on it at this point. You just move on from it.”

Freeman appeared bewildered on the play. He rushed back into the game after Tevin Coleman was injured. He went toward the line of scrimmage instead of protecting Ryan’s right flank.

On the play, Ryan zeroed in on Julio Jones and didn’t look to his right because Freeman was supposed to be there. Ryan never saw Hightower coming and was plastered to the turf.

“I can watch film on it, and I can watch play-for-play in the Super Bowl,” Freeman said. “I could watch each play probably about 10 times, and if it’s a good play I can find something that I could have did better. That’s how you get over that stuff.

“Like, you can’t get mad about it. You just have to get better from it. It’s good that stuff like that happens because you always have something to prove and get better at.”

Freeman, like former Florida State and Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, is a smaller back, at 5-foot-8, 206 pounds. Dunn, at 5-9 and 180, was a tenacious blocker in pass protection.

Freeman uses some of the same techniques that Dunn mastered over his stellar 12-year career.

“I’m a smaller back in the NFL, but I don’t play small,” Freeman said. “A lot of guys, I try to give a lot of linebackers, good linebackers like Dont’a Hightower, Lavonte David and (Kwon) Alexander, all of those guys, I try to keep them guys guessing.

“Sometimes, they are bigger than me, they are like 20 pounds heavier, but I’ll chop them down. That’ll slow them down and make my block easier the next time. So, I put that stuff on film. So, when guys see that type of stuff, they have to slow down.”

Freeman wants a contract extension, but the Falcons don’t plan to hold the missed block over his head. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said, “That’s just football” when asked if the missed block would enter in to the negotiations.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is rooting for an extension, too.

“I hope so,” Ryan said. “But that’s Thomas’ department, and they do a great job.”

The Falcons completed their offseason strength-and-conditioning program and are moving on to OTAs on May 30.

Freeman believes the most difficult period of dealing with the Super Bowl loss is behind him.

“It’s easy now,” Freeman said. “It’s not going to linger during the season.”

There’s one foolproof way to get over the crushing defeat.

“Of course, that’s our goal to get back to the Super Bowl,” Freeman said. “It starts with the small-term goals. To win every game. Win our division. Win every playoff game and hopefully in February, we’ll be back there.”

Freeman said it’s easy, like flipping a switch, but then adds how tough it is to deal with losses.

“I remember all of my loses,” Freeman said. “All of my wins, I don’t remember them, but I remember all of the losses. Especially, a tough loss.

“The Super Bowl, you’re not going to get over it the next day. It’s going to take time. It’s just one of those scars that you’ll remember forever. You just have got to move on. You can’t be salty and negative about it for the rest of your life.”

Freeman said he’s added five pounds of muscle and wants to get bigger, faster and stronger. He’s stopped eating junk food and engaging in the late-night meals and snacks.

“I’m just trying to eat more baked foods and stuff like that,” said Freeman, who noticed that he has more energy.

As a rookie in 2014, Freeman mostly was a third-down back when he had 65 carries for 248 yards and one rushing touchdown and caught 30 passes for 225 yards and one receiving touchdown. He started to flourish in his second season under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2015.

With Shanahan off to San Francisco as their head coach, Freeman doesn’t see his role changing much under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

“A few tweaks here and there,” Freeman said.

Freeman said Sarkisian is blending in well with the Falcons.

“The thing that I like about him is that he’s flexible with every guy on the team,” Freeman said. “That’s just something that if we have a problem we just go up to him and talk about it.

“I believe that if it’s a good enough reason, he’ll let us do it our way. That’s letting us get comfortable.”

Freeman, despite being the NFL’s second leading rusher over the past two seasons, has plans to improve his play in 2017. Freeman’s 2,135 yards rushing trails only Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy’s 2,162 rushing yards over the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Freeman was chosen for the Pro Bowl after each of those seasons.

“Last year, I definitely left some stuff out there, but I got better from my sophomore year in the NFL,” Freeman said. “It’s just little things like breaking arm tackles.”

In Freeman’s mind, he can help out the offensive line by breaking more long gainers.

“They don’t rotate,” Freeman said. “The only time they get a break is when we score a touchdown and the defense goes on the field. But if we have an 18-play drive, they are on the field (the whole time). … In the open field, continuing to make guys miss. Punishing guys, I just want to be real disrespectful this year when it comes to football.”

Freeman doesn’t seem to mind sharing carries with Coleman.

Freeman (227 carries for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Coleman (118 for 520 and eight) combined to rush for 1,619 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. They also caught 85 passes for 883 yards and five touchdowns. In all, they combined to amass 2,502 yards from scrimmage.

“We (are) the best duo in the NFL,” Freeman said. “I feel like we do almost everything similar.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn concurs with Freeman.

“Dealing with both of them together, that’s a monster,” Quinn said. “Having two of those guys who can be as effective in the run game and pass game, that’s something that we’re really fired up about.”

As far as his contract situation, Freeman is not too pressed.

“Business is going to get handled,” Freeman said.