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Falcons find infantry to help offense

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FLOWERING BRANCH, Ga. — For an Atlanta Falcons team struggling to find a rushing attack, the first start by second-year running back Devonta Freeman was certainly welcome.

In Sunday’s 39-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Freeman carried 30 times for 141 yards and three touchdowns.

Going into the game his average was 2 yards a carry. But he got the start, and all those carries, because Tevin Coleman was out with a cracked rib.

Freeman’s best career game by far caused a huge jolt of confidence, from himself and his team.

Freeman blew away his previous career highs — 12 carries, 38 yards and one TD — and added a dimension to the Atlanta offense that was missing since Michael Turner was racking up yards.

“He’s just one of the most relentless competitors on our club,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “For us to have the run game going … for us to demonstrate some toughness and to finish, Devonta really brought that out today. And it’s good to see.

“For us, I don’t think this changes anything. We have such belief in him. … For him, (the takeaway is) just that belief that we can count on him, which we totally can.”

Freeman ran with power, bulling through tacklers in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He showed quickness in bursting through holes for big gains. He had four runs of 10 yards or more, three of them for more than 15.

He also fulfilled his usual role as a pass-catcher, finishing with five receptions for 52 yards.

“I just believed,” Freeman said. “My offensive linemen, those guys blocked their butts off today. They created some huge holes for me and I just used my God-given ability and made it work.

“This makes me more hungry. I want more. The mindset of our team is to compete. We just want more and more and more. We know we’ve got to get better and ain’t nothing easy in the NFL. Every game is going to be a dogfight.”

With Freeman rolling up yards, the Falcons were able to unleash wide receiver Julio Jones in the passing attack.

Three weeks into the season, Jones is on an unprecedented pace. He hauled down 12 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he now has 34 receptions, the most ever by an NFL receiver in his first three games.

The previous mark of 31 was shared by the Jets’ Clark Gaines (1980), New England’s Troy Brown (2002) and Wes Welker (2011).

“All the plays he makes, it just feels normal to him,” Quinn said. “It’s not for us, that’s for sure. … He’s just a really unique guy in terms of the way he competes. He’s used to those kinds of plays and he has all the confidence in the world in that.”

Jones broke loose in the second half. In the first half, he was targeted eight times but managed only three catches for 27 yards.

But in the second half, the coaches moved him around in the formation, lining him up on both sides in the slot and even as the tailback in an I-formation, creating favorable matchups. Jones torched Cowboys slot cornerback Tyler Patmon on a deep slant for a 45-yard touchdown.

“If I drop a ball or something, keep throwing it,” Jones said. “Nine times out of 10, I’m going to make it right before I do something wrong.”

REPORT CARD VS. COWBOYS

–PASSING OFFENSE: A. Matt Ryan completed 24 of 36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with a passer rating of 109.1. His job was made easier by having a solid rushing attack for the first time in nearly three seasons. He completed passes to seven receivers and had explosive plays of 45, 35 and 21 yards in the passing game. Ryan has now led the Falcons on 23 fourth-quarter comebacks and 30 game-winning drives. Julio Jones turned in another stellar performance. He caught three of eight targets for 27 yards in the first half. He caught nine of 12 targets in the second half and scored two touchdowns. Ryan took the blame for Jones’ low production in the first half. He cited accuracy issues. Jones’ 34 catches through three games is the most ever in NFL history. Leonard Hankerson caught three of his six targets for 45 yards. Roddy White didn’t catch a pass for the second consecutive game after catching at least one pass in 130 straight games. Tight end Jacob Tamme left the game with a concussion. Levine Toilolo filled in and caught a key two-point conversion to help pull the Falcons within striking distance, 28-25.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: A-plus. With Tevin Coleman out with a fractured rib, Freeman had 30 carries for 141 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught all five of his targets for 52 yards as a receiver. In the first half, Freeman had 12 carries for 52 yards and 18 for 89 yards in the second half. He said that he’s a rhythm runner and he got stronger as the game went on. He ran with power and authority. Freeman’s three rushing touchdowns marked the first time a Falcon running back has rushed for three touchdowns since running back Michael Turner accomplished the feat in 2010. Additionally his 141 rushing yards were the most by a Falcons running back since Turner rushed for 172 yards in Week 17 of the 2011 season.

–PASS DEFENSE: B-plus. The secondary wasn’t challenged much as Dallas quarterback Brandon Weeden stayed away from throwing the ball down the field after a second-quarter interception by safety William Moore. Nickel back Phillips Adams is quietly turning in a strong season. Free safety Ricardo Allen left the game with a knee injury, but he returned to the action. He finished with seven tackles, but missed at least one tackle during Dallas’ early onslaught. The Falcons didn’t allow Terrance Williams, the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver, a catch. The Falcons had two sacks and three quarterback hits.

–RUN DEFENSE: C. The defensive line got pushed around in the first half as the Cowboys rushed for 131 yards on 16 carries. The group picked up the pace in the second half and held the Cowboys to minus-4 yards rushing. Linebackers Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant got off to a slow start. Worrilow, who was playing with a calf injury, left the game, but returned. Durant led the team with nine tackles. Worrilow added five tackles.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus. Punter Matt Bosher averaged 51.3 yards on five punts and had a net average of 45.3. Matt Bryant had a big 32-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter. The kickoff coverage team gave up a 28-yard return to Lance Dunbar. The Cowboys averaged 8 yards on three punt returns.

–COACHING: B-minus. The coaching staff must be lauded for its halftime adjustments. The coaches came up with a plan to shut down the Cowboys rushing attack. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan moved Julio Jones around to get him open. Jones called Shanahan, “a genius” after the game. He even had Jones line up as a running back on one play.


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