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Freeman helps to balance the offense

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The Sports Xchange

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Running back Devonta Freeman has been a shining light for the Atlanta Falcons.

Freeman, the league’s second-leading rusher after five weeks, has helped to balance the offense. When quarterback Matt Ryan was misfiring against the Redskins, Freeman carried the attack with 153 yards on 27 carries. He also caught seven passes for 44 yards.

He has rushed for 405 yards, which trails only Chicago’s Matt Forte, who has rushed for 438 yards. Freeman’s eight rushing touchdowns are tops in the league.

With a legitimate rushing threat, teams may have to stop doubling wide receiver Julio Jones.

“I make it harder on a lot of defenses because they have to play our offense fair,” Freeman said. “They can’t cheat in the box or they can’t double Julio. Lately, they’ve been doubling Julio, which has been creating a lot of space for the running game. We’ve just been taking advantage of it.”

Freeman, a fourth-round pick in 2014, playing sparingly last season as Steven Jackson apparently had his last carries in the league. In 2014, Freeman displayed flashes as he split backup time with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith.

“I always knew that I was capable,” Freeman said. “My thing was that I just wanted an opportunity. Opportunity is everything. I always believed in myself. I’ve been feeling like this forever, it was just the opportunity.”

He’s made the most of that opportunity after Tevin Coleman suffered a fractured rib against the New York Giants in the season opener.

Freeman made his first NFL start in the third game of the year and amassed 193 total yards and scored three touchdowns against Dallas. In his second game, he piled up 149 yards before going to the bench with the score 35-0 with 10:50 to play in the third quarter against Houston. The 197 yards against Washington was a new career-high.

Freeman has found holes in the outside zone blocking system and has run with speed, power and finesse sometimes weaving his way through traffic.

“It’s just one of those talents that I have,” Freeman said. “My eyes are moving fast, but my legs are moving slower. I feel like I’m moving slow because my eyes are moving fast and that slows the game down.”

Against Washington, Ryan missed deep passes to wide receivers Leonard Hankerson, Nick Williams and Julio Jones. He skipped a couple of passes short to the outside and sailed one slightly behind Jones that was intercepted.

For the normally accurate Ryan, it was stunning to behold. He finished with two interceptions and fumble.

In 115 regular-season games, Ryan has just 12 outings with a sub-60 passer rating. The Falcons are 5-7 when he has a sub-60 game.

Normally, he bounces back with a big showing.

Ryan’s Sunday rating against the Redskins was his lowest since he recorded a 48.6 in Week 2 last season against Cincinnati. The following week, he torched Tampa Bay in a 56-14 victory, completing 21-of-24 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns. He had a 155.9 rating that day.

“It comes down to execution,” Ryan said. “We didn’t play as well as we would have liked. Certainly, we made enough plays to get the job done. We want to play better. We can’t turn the football over the way that we did.”

When he had to, Ryan came through with a big touchdown drive to give the Falcons a 19-16 lead with 24 seconds left in regulation.

“When it came down to it, on that last drive, we made the plays,” Ryan said.

SERIES HISTORY: 92nd regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 48-43. Before last season’s two-game sweep, the Saints were 13-3 since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006.

GAME PLAN

–Falcons cornerback Robert Alford, the hero of the 25-19 victory over Washington, respects the Saints passing attack and hasn’t seen a dropoff in Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ skills. Brees has had to battle a shoulder injury that caused him to miss one game.

“Drew Brees has been one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL for a long time,” Alford said. “He’s that for a reason, you can’t put (anything) past him.”

The Falcons must be aware of Brees’ pump fakes.

“It’s something that he has in his game,” Alford said. “It’s something that you have to be prepared for on game day.”

–After facing unproven NFL quarterbacks in four of their first five games, the Falcons’ secondary will need to cover well against the Saints.

The Falcons have played Philadelphia’s Sam Bradford, Dallas’ Brandon Weeden, Houston’s Ryan Mallett and Washington’s Kirk Cousins. New York’s Eli Manning is the only elite quarterback they’ve faced.

Brees is completing 66.6 percent of his passes and has a 93.9 passer rating.

“Drew Brees is one of the best in the NFL,” Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. “He manages everything from the line of scrimmage.”

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Falcons LB Joplo Bartu, who is helping to fill in for Justin Durant, vs. Saints RB C.J. Spiller, a threat out of the backfield.

With Justin Durant not expected to play, Bartu, who was a starter in 2014, will take over his role in the base defense. Bartu will have his hands full with Spiller in coverage. Spiller is averaging 12 yards per catch and took a wheel route 80 yards for a touchdown in overtime to beat Dallas.

–Falcons RB Devonta Freeman, who’s making his fourth NFL start, vs. Saints MLB Stephone Anthony, an early rookie of the year candidate.

Freeman has amassed 193, 149 and 197 total yards in his first three starts in the NFL. He’s run the ball strong between the tackles and has caught the ball well out of the backfield. Anthony, who was selected 31st overall out of Clemson, has been one of the few bright spots on defense for the Saints. He has 32 tackles and one tackle on the season.

–Falcons CB Desmond Trufant, who has five pass deflections, vs. Saints WR Brandin Cooks, who had a 46-yard catch against the Eagles.

Trufant is off to a fine start this season and some teams have elected to stay away from his side of the field. Trufant has come on strong in run support. Cooks is the Saints’ leading receiver with 25 catches and he’s averaging 12.9 yards per game and has a touchdown. “He’s very solid,” Trufant said. “He’s a swing guy, they’ll throw screens to him. They try to get him the ball in a lot of different ways. We have to be aware of him.”


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