Devonta Freeman, 7 TDs — who didn’t see that coming?

As the runaway minds of starving Atlanta pro sports fans ponder the possibilities of a 16-0 season, a championship victory parade — how could we POSSIBLY squeeze that in? — and the secret intersection of the Quinn and Lombardi family blood lines, here’s a thought: None of this would be possible without a running game.

You remember a running game? It was last seen in Atlanta before Michael Turner wore down and ate one too many Ding Dongs, before every offfensive linemen started bruising and going bad like week-old bananas.

The Falcons’ running game in the last three seasons: 29th, 32nd and 24th in the NFL. That’s no way to win a Super Bowl.

Don’t take this as a declaration in early October that the Falcons are going to win a Super Bowl. But if they’re suddenly being mentioned as a team that can make a previously unthinkable run, it’s at least in part because this team’s offense doesn’t revolve around just Matt Ryan and long-range missiles.

The Falcons did ugly things to the remains of the Houston Texans Sunday at the Georgia Dome. They led 28-0 at halftime, 42-0 in the third quarter and won 48-21.

So ends the streak of fourth-quarter comebacks. Houston imploded early. Not every team gives a touchdown to an opponent when an offensive linemen (Derek Newton) punches the ball out of his own running back’s hands (Arian Foster), leading to a fumble return.

Here was another rarity Sunday: The other Falcons outscored Julio Jones 48-0.

That’s right. Jones wasn’t needed. After 34 receptions for 440 yards and four touchdowns in the first three games, the wide receiver was a relative potted plant against the Texans with four after-thought receptions.

Media members did not feel the need to immediately swarm him afterward.

“This is kinda nice,” he said.

Instead, the Falcons bludgeoned Houston with running back Devonta Freeman. He rushed for three touchdowns (16, 23 and 6 yards) and accounted for 149 yards in rushing and receiving. His performance came a week after he rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns in a victory at Dallas.

So add this to an early season of improbabilities: Devonta Freeman set an NFL record. He’s the first running back to score three touchdowns in each of his first two starts at least since the merger (before which statistics were chiseled on stone tablets and therefore difficult to confirm). He has seven touchdowns in the first four games, the most since LaDainian Tomlinson had eight to start the 2005 season.

Suddenly, the masses are brawling in Fantasy League war rooms over Devonta Freeman’s draft rights.

This is the same Freeman who had a cameo role on a crummy team in his rookie season. The same Freeman who struggled in training camp with a strained hamstring and lost his bid for a starting job to rookie Tevin Coleman (who has missed the last two games with a fractured rib). The same Freeman who through the first two games was averaging 1.95 yards per carry (22 for 43).

Freeman didn’t deny the obvious: He was running tentatively.

“Especially last year,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of opportunities, and it’s hard to get into a rhythm. It’s hard to get a feel when you’re limited. Once I was able to get into a rhythm, it changed. The confidence comes when you start trusting your blocks more. You just start believing.”

The Falcons have lacked balance and, therefore, unpredictability on offense. But if Ryan, Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan believe Freeman and Coleman are viable options in the running and short-passing game, defenses won’t be allowed to key in on just Jones and Roddy White. Strong pass-rush teams like the Texans (with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney) can’t merely tee off on Ryan.

The zone blocking scheme is developing nicely. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder said Freeman’s early season difficulties stem in part from linemen not being completely adept at the system.

“It feels good to be able to run the ball, and to be able to wear teams down,” he said. “I think we’re all figuring this out together. We knew it would take a little time but it’s starting to click.”

At 4-0, so are the Falcons.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: Quarterbacks
Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: Quarterbacks

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is the NFL’s first $30 million man. He’s the top paid player in the league because the Falcons valued his steady leadership and winning ways, which include a franchise-record six playoff trips.  After becoming the first Falcon named the NFL’s most valuable player in 2016, Ryan’s stats dipped...
Cam Newton’s foundation hometown gala is set for tonight
Cam Newton’s foundation hometown gala is set for tonight

The Cam Newton Foundation’s Hometown Gala is set tonight at the Intercontinental Buckhead Hotel. The Cam Newton Foundation is the charitable arm of Atlanta native and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. The foundation is dedicated to providing strategic programs and events in the Atlanta and Charlotte communities, the foundation has...
Falcons’ defense, special teams look to improve in 2018
Falcons’ defense, special teams look to improve in 2018

Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel had a strong first season. The unit showed improvement. However, when the team reports for training camp on July 26, Manuel plans to keep pushing with the hopes of elevating his unit to elite status in the NFL. “We are going to be relentless,” Manuel said. “We are going to be tough. We...
Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: Special teams 
Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: Special teams 

With the kicking and punting operations in good shape with Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher, the Falcons sought to improve their special teams units over the offseason. The Falcons, who report to training camp on July 26, hope they landed a dynamic coverage duo in veteran Justin Bethel and rookie Russell Gage. “One thing is that you are bringing speed...
Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: Safeties
Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: Safeties

There was a surprise player on Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s list of six players who can elevate their play in 2018. Hard-hitting strong safety Keanu Neal, who went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season, was on that list. With Neal and free safety Ricardo Allen, the back end of the Falcons’ defense is strong. In a late offseason...
More Stories