FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Falcons running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman have spent the season trying to acquire a live-to-fight-another-day temperament when quarterback Matt Ryan hands them the football. It’s not easy teaching home run hitters to bunt.
Coleman and Freeman each ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds prior to being drafted, and naturally they still want to show off their burst. But in the regular season, if the defense sniffed out a run, Coleman and Freeman did not always follow the “do no harm” mantra and accept a 2-yard gain, or even no gain. There were times when they demoralized the offense by trying to shiny up a bad play with a dance out of the hole. Thus, Atlanta was tied for fifth in the NFL in the regular season with 62 negative rushing plays.
In two playoff wins, however, the Falcons have converted 16 of 25 third downs, and one reason is Coleman and Freeman accepting small gains (just four negative rushing plays in two games). On third and long, Atlanta ranked 19th in the NFL in converting a first down. But the Falcons didn’t face many third and longs in wins over Seattle and Green Bay.
“The play better end up with your shoulder pads going north-south,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “When you do that it makes it a lot easier to keep dialing up runs; you want to stay in manageable third downs. When you lose yards . . . it makes it very tough to stay with the run.
“We’re never trying to have negative plays, and usually if you can stay on the field long enough the big one will come.”
The Falcons will need to run in the Super Bowl because the Patriots are likely going to get physical with star wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and make it difficult for Ryan to get in a rhythm. Atlanta has been balanced this season (first in passer rating in the NFL, fifth in rushing yards), but the Falcons had better be prepared to flip that.
Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards during the regular season. Coleman, who played in three fewer games, had 520.
They both understand they cannot put Ryan in a bind on second down in the Super Bowl by squirming, dancing, juking . . . and losing 4 yards.
“You’ve just got to take what you get sometimes, take the 2 or 3 yards, because eventually those 2 or 3 are going to turn into home runs,” Freeman said.
“Make sure not to lose any,” Coleman said. “A lot of times things are going to bust and instead of trying to create a play by reversing back on the field, just get down and don’t lose yards. Stay ahead. Bobby [Turner, the Falcons’ running backs coach] says make sure your helmet is going toward that goal post in front of you instead of that goal post behind you.”
Freeman (third season) and Coleman (second) are early in their careers. As they gained experience, Shanahan started putting in plays to take advantage of their skill sets.
Coleman busted out as a receiver in Week 5 with four catches for 132 yards against a very good Denver defense. His arrival came when he was split left with two other receivers, matched up against an inside linebacker, Brandon Marshall. Shanahan called an arrow route straight up the left seam. Ryan connected with Coleman for a 31-yard touchdown.
“That seam route was just for me, we didn’t have it last year,” Coleman said. “They find ways to use you here.”
Indeed, in some games the Falcons have 10 receivers and two running backs capable of making a big play. The Patriots’ mantra is defend every blade of grass and Ryan is going to force them to do that with Jones, Sanu, and the rest. But the most important blades could be inside the tackle box. The Falcons have made a living in the playoffs with long drives. They have had eight drives in two games of at least 68 yards, including one of 99.
Atlanta can drive the ball because of a modest but effective running game sprinkled in with Ryan’s passing. In the wins over Seattle and Green Bay, the Falcons wore down both defenses late because they led by a wide margin in time of possession in each game.
The Falcons have been able to drive the ball because they have just 11 turnovers in 18 games. Lately, Coleman and Freeman have not been ruining marches with negative plays. That has to continue in the Super Bowl for Atlanta to win. New England builds a wall with its defensive front and puts up sideboards. Coleman and Freeman need to barrel into that wall, not bounce and lose 3 or 4.
“It’s one gap at a time,” Shanahan said. “We try to hit those gaps. If someone is in that gap, we go to the next gap, and we’re always trying to go downhill.”