For the second week in a row, the Falcons offensive line struggled to open any running lanes for Devonta Freeman.
Last week against the Saints, Freeman was held to just 36 yards on 11 carries, which was a season-low (excluding the Cowboys game, when he left on the second play of the game with a concussion).
This week, Freeman went up against the Panthers’ sixth ranked rushing defense. He set another season low with just 23 on 11 carries. But unlike the Saints game, Freeman found a different way to have an impact for a Falcons team that needed a win to secure a playoff berth. The 24-year old’s contribution to the Falcons’ 22-10 win came in the passing game.
Freeman was targeted 11 times by quarterback Matt Ryan, which tied a career-high for a single game. He caught nine passes for a career-high 85 yards. His reception total was the second-most in his career. He also added the Falcons only touchdown of the game on a catch in the first quarter.
“Coming into the game, we felt like Devonta Freeman was a good matchup for us in some of their zone coverages going against their backers,” Ryan said. “He’s so talented out of the backfield. He’s such a versatile running back that it was a great advantage for us to try and get him the ball.”
Freeman was Ryan’s favorite target throughout the first half of Sunday’s contest at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Less than two minutes into the second quarter, Freeman already had six catches for 64 yards, which was more passes than he caught in any game this season.
“Our quarterback trusted me, and just being there and giving him that confidence that he can come to me on third down any time or any play call that is designed for me or not, that is just my big thing,” Freeman said.
Ryan targeted Freeman twice on the Falcons’ opening drive. The first pass was a quick-hitter to the right that went for six yards. Ryan then came back to Freeman on the final play of the drive. The Falcons had the football on the Panthers 19-yard line. Ryan stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure from the Panthers’ pass rush when Freeman crossed into his vision.
“He was a check down on that play,” Ryan said. “We were working our progression across the board. The last of it I didn’t really see. I don’t know if him and Julio Jones rubbed or bumped into each other. I don’t know what happened there as I was climbing, but I’m glad it shook out the way it did.”
No one was within seven yards of Freeman, who hauled in the pass from Ryan, picked up a block from tight end Austin Hooper, dodged a defender, and lowered his shoulder into the end zone for his first receiving touchdown of the season.
“He is so shifty. I always tell people he could play the piano with his feet probably,” linebacker Deion Jones said. “Watching him make guys miss and get vertical and finish strong with his shoulder down, it’s just the mindset of him being impactful.”
Jones is used to attempting to track down the versatile Freeman in practice. Plus, he said trying to cover Freeman in space was a good help when preparing to face the Panthers, whose top receiver was running back Christian McCaffery. The Falcons defense limited McCaffery to just five catches for 40 yards, both under his season averages.
Freeman and Ryan both agreed targeting the running back was a result of the Panthers pass rush. Ryan said the Falcons didn’t want to give the Panthers any time to get in the backfield. Even when they did, the Freeman broke free from the linebacker in coverage and provided an outlet for Ryan.
“I thought it was a good game plan by (offensive coordinator) Steve Sarkisian, and then really good execution and effort by Freeman,” Ryan said. “I thought he played extremely well.”