Everyone is aware that wide receiver Julio Jones is Atlanta’s preeminent offensive threat.
The 27-year-old is a big play machine, a monster in the red zone and commands the attention of defenders every play he’s on the field. Simply focusing on the 6-foot-3, 220-pound receiver became an even more dangerous proposition for opponents with last year’s emergence of talented running back Devonta Freeman.
By the time Tampa Bay met Atlanta for the first time Week 7 last season, Freeman was on a five-game run with at least 130 offensive yards. A threat taking handoffs or swinging out in the passing game, the Florida State product ended up rushing for over 1,000 yards, adding 578 more receiving and scored 14 touchdowns.
But when last year began, it was rookie Tevin Coleman, not Freeman, who Atlanta gave the first shot to be the team’s feature back. Drafted in the third round out of Indiana, Coleman had a decent start before a Week 2 injury slowed him down and opened the door for Freeman. A few fumbles after his return to the lineup further cemented Freeman’s spot atop the depth chart.
This is an NFL era of offenses desiring running back tandems to share the load, though. So despite Freeman’s superior 2015 performance, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are just as high on Coleman to start this season as they were last year.
According to an ESPN.com report this week, Shanahan said he has confidence in both backs, that he plans to “go with the guy who’s hot,” and that “there’s really no difference to me which one is in the game.”
When Quinn was asked during his Wednesday conference call with the Tampa Bay media about Freeman’s impact on the offense, he too brought Coleman’s name into the response.
“[Freeman’s] such a factor for us,” Quinn said. “He brings a lot to our team, he really does. Not just his ability to run it, but he can honestly play receiver. He’s got those kind of ball skills. He’s got that kind of quickness when we use him as a weapon that way, too, so we’re going to use him on all downs.
“Fortunately for us – much like Tampa, they have good running backs – we have two good ones as well and we’re going to use Coleman a good bit too. We’ve got a nice duo. I think it’s the ability of what he has to be a complete player – talking about Freeman – his ability to catch it out of the backfield and make things happen. And then his ability to make cuts. He’s a slasher and that’s really, when you get a guy in space, he can break them off and slash. I think that’s probably the biggest attribute for him.”
In sweeping Atlanta last season, Tampa Bay managed to neutralize the Falcons’ rushing attack with Freeman as the lead back both games. The Bucs held their NFC South foe to an average of 82.5 yards on the ground, with Freeman accounting for the vast majority, and neither running back found the end zone.
Even though the Bucs were able to keep Freeman from blowing up, defensive players got plenty of looks at how impactful he can be in the Falcons offense by going for over 100 total yards both games. Of Atlanta’s 815 yards of offense against Tampa Bay last year, 234 of them were picked up by Freeman.
Focusing too much on just one Falcons offensive weapon, however, can lead to trouble, Bucs players and coaches said this week.
“I think they really have a big three right now, in Matt [Ryan] and Julio and then the tailback [Devonta Freeman],” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “They have three really, really fine football players – ‘game wreckers’ as we like to call them – on offense. What they do in their running game fits [Freeman] a lot and then Julio’s a threat to score from anywhere on the field at any time. And obviously I’m very fond of Matt Ryan as a quarterback. So those three guys will be the guys we need to stop.”
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy reiterated Koetter’s thoughts when asked about the biggest challenge trying to stop Atlanta. The avid comic book reader and gamer also offered is own descriptive take on one of the game’s premier wideouts.
“You take what we’ve got in our Jameis [Winston] and our Doug [Martin] and our Mike [Evans] and our ‘V-Jax’ [Vincent Jackson] and then you look across the way and you’re like, ‘Dang, they’ve got a Matt Ryan, a Freeman, and a mutant over there’ – Julio that is,” McCoy said. “They can match us step for step, so yes, those three are as good as it gets.”