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Freeman has Falcons off and running

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FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. — Running back Devonta Freeman sat quietly behind Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith last season as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons.

Freeman showed flashes of brilliance out of the backfield, but was not used between the tackles.

Under the new coaching staff and the outside zone scheme, Freeman won the job because of an injury and has taken over. He has provided a spark for the Falcons offense and leads the NFL in rushing and rushing touchdowns.

Freeman has rushed for 621 yards on 131 carries and scored nine rushing touchdowns. His goal is to win the NFL rushing title.

“I do,” Freeman said Wednesday. “But that’s something I share with the offensive linemen. Credit goes to them because they are doing more than me. I am just using my athletic ability and making it happen.”

Chris Johnson of Arizona is second with 567 yards in seven games. Five of the NFL’s top 10 rushers have played in fewer than seven games, led by Doug Martin of Tampa Bay at No. 3 with 541 yards in six games.

The Falcons selected Freeman in the fourth round of the 2014 draft out of Florida State. He had only 65 carries for 248 yards as a rookie, but has flourished in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-read offense.

“I’m not surprised,” Freeman said. “I put in the work.”

Freeman rushed for 116 yards on 25 carries last week, which gave him this third straight game with at least 100 yards rushing.

That made him the first Falcons running back to have three straight 100-yard game since Michael Turner accomplished the feat during Weeks 8-10 of the 2009 season.

“Devonta is doing a great job for us running the ball,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn lauded Freeman’s consistency.

“I think it honestly jumps out in his technique as a running back,” Quinn said. “He honestly takes it one gap at a time.”

Freeman has been a perfect fit for the Falcons’ new outside-zone rushing attack.

“In our system, where he can take it outside, it could be an outside run, but we’ve seen plays with him where it can start outside, come back into a B gap or C gap, or even cut all of the way back,” Quinn said.

Freeman points to the play of the Falcons offensive line for helping gain his yards.

“They are always on the grind,” Freeman said. “They always create phenomenal holes and I just have to finish up and execute.”

In addition to running the football, Freeman has been a weapon in the passing game. He’s second on the team with 34 receptions for 310 yards and one touchdown.

Freeman needs 69 yards against Tampa Bay to surpassed 1,000 all-purpose yards in only eight games.

“I think one of the things that we all talk about a lot is he can really catch it, too,” Quinn said. “He’s a real factor both in the run game and in the pass game.”

Against the Titans, the Falcons didn’t give Freeman the ball on a third-and-one and fourth-and-one. Fullback Patrick DiMarco was stopped on third down and Matt Ryan’s pass intended for tight end Jacob Tamme was intercepted on fourth down.

“Through the (exhibition) season, I think we had four runs and a pass,” Quinn said. “On the last one we thought we had a good shot on the fullback play to get it. On the last one, we were expecting a certain coverage, and let’s give them credit, they took the coverage away that they had.

“The belief for Devonta, in terms of our mindset and what he can do, he’s a factor in everything. It would’ve been great to have that come back, but as we’re playing our goal-line offense there’s lots of ways to attack.”

Freeman, a laid back sort, will start to get more attention.

“I think he’s in a spot where he just loves to compete,” Quinn said. “As it comes down to it, it’s all going to be about this week, in terms of the things he wants to improve on in the run game.”

SERIES HISTORY: This will be the 44th regular season meeting. The Falcons lead the series, 22-21, and have won three of the past four games. Last season, they dismantled the Bucs 56-14 at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta won the second meeting in 2014 by 27-17.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Bucs LT Dononvan Smith, who was picked in the second round out of Penn State, vs. Falcons DE Vic Beasley, the eighth overall pick in the draft.

Smith, who’s massive at 6-foot-6, 338-pounds, is playing solid football for the Bucs. He’s played 229 passing snaps and 186 running snaps. He’s grading out higher with his run blocking. Beasley has two sacks. He’s flashed his speed at times, but must perfect his counter moves in order to finish his rushes and get to the quarterback.

–Bucs DT Gerald McCoy, the three-time Pro Bowler who remains a force inside, vs. Falcons RG Chris Chester, who is playing well and has help to stabilize the line.

McCoy is off to another strong start. He has 28 tackles, three sacks, four passes batted down and two forced fumbles. Chester will receive some help from center Mike Person to slow down McCoy.

–Bucs CB Alterraun Verner, who was benched earlier in the season, vs. Falcons WR Julio Jones, who had nine catches for 93 yards last week.

Verner, who signed a four-year, $25.5 million contract with the Bucs before the 2013 season, was benched for the Week 3 game against Houston. He has returned to the starting lineup. Jones was targeted a whopping 17 times against Tennessee. He could have a big game if the Bucs play their cover-2 zone for the majority of the game.


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