FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Through the first two days of training camp, it’s been abundantly clear that the Falcons want to throw the football to running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Many reps have been utilized on getting these young ball carriers the rock through the air, and the results have been promising.
There are seemingly three main reasons why getting Atlanta running back involved in the passing game has been so vitally important early in camp. First, and the simplest reason, running backs that can catch passes with regularity give offenses more weapons. But there are two other powerful reasons.
The Falcons have a returning Pro-Bowl rusher in Freeman who emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher during his third season a year ago. They also have a second-year back in Coleman, a powerful, speedy runner who was taken in the third round of the 2015 draft to lead Atlanta’s rushing attack. Both backs want touches. The Falcons have to find a way to get both involved regularly without diminishing Freeman’s role.
Adding both as elements to the passing game offers more touches.
Third, and here comes speculation as only two days on training camp have been completed, if offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense can become more versatile – if it spreads the ball around to multiple running backs, multiple tight ends and multiple receivers, it should churn yardage more efficiently and score in the red zone more often.
“When we have those matchups, especially in man-to-man, both he and Devonta [Freeman] are a handful,” said head coach Dan Quinn after Friday’s camp session. “When we talk about him it’s the speed that he has. You know if a linebacker has to go out, that’s not a matchup as a linebacker you like going out to get singled out. We’re trying to have that as a featured part of our game.”
Quinn continued with how hard it was to cover Freeman:
“Obviously, you feel the pressure of a guy who can stick his head and think it’s a cut one way and come back up,” Quinn said. “It’s that short-area quickness that makes him such a challenge for people to cover. He can break laterally and get to full speed really fast and the guys that can do that makes it the hardest to cover.
“When you play man-to-man, you usually have a leverage. It’s inside leverage or outside leverage, so an option route you can break away from that leverage. You can imagine how hard that is to cover. That’s what we look for often times in man-to-man. It’s usually that inside leverage or outside leverage, and you can break them off. That’s why it’s really hard.”
Catching passes out of the backfield will be nothing new for Freeman, who hauled in 73 last season for 578 yards and three touchdowns. Only two backs (Theo Riddick (80) and Danny Woodhead (80)) notched more receptions. But Freeman was the only running back in 2015 that eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and also caught at least 70 passes.
Coleman only pulled down three receptions; the Falcons utilized him almost exclusively in the running game. However, Atlanta seems to have an eye on changing that in 2016.
Both Freeman and Coleman have each hauled in a touchdown pass of at least 40 yards in camp thus far – one each day for the duo. The premier moment had to have been when Coleman streaked down the sideline in 11-on-11 drills and weaved between three defenders to grab a 50-yard strike from quarterback Matt Ryan.
Ryan’s pass was perfectly placed to where only Coleman could grab it. And even though Coleman had to maneuver his body with an unbalanced twist at the end to complete the play, he did so with grace, making it look easy.
Not only has one of the bigger trends in camp been getting running back involved in the passing game, but the Falcons want to hit these guys at many depths and from varying routes.
“It’s based on the speed first,” Quinn said Thursday. “See if we can go take some shots down the field. Those are some of those matchups that we’re looking for. Like with man-to-man, when we see our running backs outside, that’s a matchup we want to go after.
“For us to get our best at matchups, knowing who those guys are at running back, that’s a tough assignment and we want to exploit that whenever we can.”
Freeman and Coleman have both been successful out of the backfield on wheel routes, have been used as dump-off options and have lined up in the slot or out wide to catch passes. If these two can line up anywhere and run routes to any depth of the field (read: a 6-yard route and a 50-yard route and everything in between) there’s another scary byproduct.
In the scenarios seen through two days of camp, Freeman and Coleman could theoretically be used on the field at the same time, one as a rushing option and one as a receiver … or even both as receivers with some pre-snap confusion caused to move the defense around.
With Atlanta’s running backs involved mightily in the passing attack, the Falcons should have more full-strike ability at any time. And the offense should be much more efficient.