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.