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01 Feb 2017

Film Room: Devonta Freeman

by Cian Fahey

No NFL team's season -- especially no team that reaches a Super Bowl -- has a season about a singular entity, be it a coach, player, or overarching storyline. With that said, if you ranked the most prominent members of the Atlanta Falcons this year, you would get some familiar names at the top. Matt Ryan should win league MVP before the season concludes. Julio Jones' monstrous talent makes him the second-most prominent player on his team and one of the most recognizable in the whole league. After the top two players, the list takes an unorthodox turn towards offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the team's offensive coordinator who will soon be the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and the architect of the unit that has enjoyed a historic season.

After the top three, you can make arguments for different players alongside head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn would be a popular choice, but the Falcons really haven't made it this far because of the prowess of their 27th-ranked defense. Nobody but Vic Beasley has truly starred for the Falcons defense this season, and Beasley's importance is lessened when the Falcons offense has mostly steamrolled its opponents in high-scoring games.

Devonta Freeman has been an integral contributor to those steamrollings. Freeman averaged 4.8 yards per attempt during the regular season, rushing 227 times for more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also added 54 receptions for 462 yards and two touchdowns. Freeman's production wasn't surprising. Any back who plays behind an even competent line in Kyle Shanahan's offense should expect to eclipse 1,000 yards. Freeman arguably under-produced this year, but that is simply because Tevin Coleman was taking away touches.

What makes Freeman a special player is his ability to blend consistent decision-making with the penchant for creating yards from positions where no yards should be created.

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Unsurprisingly, Freeman's longest run of the season came when his offensive line dominated the opposing defensive front. It was a Week 17 game against the New Orleans Saints. The offensive line executes two double-teams on the interior of the defense, while the backside defender to the left penetrates downfield, past Freeman. This gives the running back a pocket of space to work in even as he advances across the line of scrimmage.

It's at this point of the play when Freeman shows his value. He has to be patient to extend this gain past the line of bodies in front of him. Freeman threatens a cutback to the left, which forces the linebacker who is engaged with his right guard to commit to that direction. He takes himself out of the middle of the play as a result. While Freeman threatens the outside, his right tackle is falling on top of the defender he is blocking. This creates a running lane right through the middle of the defensive front. It's not a wide-open lane and there is an arriving safety coming from a deeper position, but Freeman's quick feet and acceleration allows him to break into space and run in the long touchdown.

Quickness has always been the foundation of Freeman's success. When he entered the league he didn't have the power to break tackles and he wasn't blazing fast to run away from defenders. He's still not blazing fast, but he has built on his athleticism to the point that he is now an explosive back both through contact and when he finds space. Despite how much he improves in other areas, it's still his quickness that stands out more than any other athletic attribute.

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This play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is also perfectly executed. The Buccaneers contributed to their own failures by aligning poorly at the snap. The right defensive end was inside the tight end to that side, with his closest linebacker even further inside. By not aligning slightly wider, the Buccaneers are essentially conceding the edge on that side of the field. With the defensive end initially double-teamed before the inside defender is passed onto the linebacker, Freeman can easily turn back to that side of the field and run to the sideline. He is met square by a cornerback, but the running back's balance and quickness allows him make a hard plant with his inside foot before pushing back towards the outside.

Freeman conceded ground coming out of his plant to go around the cornerback. This put him in position to be caught by a recovering linebacker. The linebacker had a decent angle, but the value of Freeman's short-area acceleration showed its worth as he escaped towards the sideline.

The Falcons ranked seventh in rushing DVOA this year. Kyle Shanahan's play designs and the continuity that comes with health have obviously helped to set Freeman up for success, but it wasn't always an easy situation to be in. Alex Mack was a great addition to the interior of the offensive line, but Mack alone wasn't going to turn underwhelming guard play into great guard play. The Falcons have largely been happy to just get by with their guards this season. Neither Andy Levitre or Chris Chester would be considered above-average players at this point. Furthermore, the Falcons' tight ends are built to be receivers more than they are to be run blockers, meaning the execution on the outside isn't always as crisp and clean as it was in the above examples.

It is on those plays where Freeman's talent becomes more overtly obvious. Great running backs take a play that is perfectly defended and still gain the yards they set out to gain. There were few better examples of that type of play in 2016 than this one by Freeman against the Kansas City Chiefs.

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It's second-and-1. Mack is tasked with making an impossible block on the left inside linebacker. That linebacker easily runs past Mack and confronts Freeman deep in the backfield. Freeman has nowhere to go, so he is forced to stop his feet and turn in the opposite direction, typically a death knell for running backs at this level. Stopping your feet disrupts the timing of the play and allows more defenders to swarm around you. Freeman was forced to, though, if he was going to make the first defender miss.

Immediately after he made the first defender miss, Freeman was forced to make a second defender miss before working all the way back to the other side of the field. He cut inside the safety who confronted him to get the first down.

That combination of quickness and balance is rare. Throw in his instinctual reactions and awareness and you've got an exceptional running back.

When Freeman was a rookie he more often than not went down on first contact. He didn't run with violence or power because he was always running into bulkier bodies. His greater athleticism since his second season has allowed him to plough his way through defenders undeterred. His size has gone from being a hindrance to a strength. Freeman's low center of gravity makes it very difficult to get clean contact or wrap him up without executing a perfect tackle. When he lowers his head and has built-up momentum, the running back is rarely prevented from finishing plays moving forward. He has become such an impressive athlete that he can break tackles from a standing start in tight spaces.

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In the above GIF you can see Freeman break multiple tackles before diving into the end zone.

The Patriots have a very disciplined and talented defensive front seven. Running against them won't be easy for the Falcons, even considering the success that Shanahan's offense has had this year. If Freeman gets a free lane into the secondary, it will be a rare one. He will be forced to break tackles and create space for himself if he is going to have consistent success in this game. That is assuming that the Falcons stick to their typical game plan and don't try to exploit the Patriots' greater weaknesses on defense. If the Falcons spread out the Patriots defense, we should see a lot of Tevin Coleman. Coleman is an outstanding receiving back because of his explosiveness and natural ball skills. Coleman's presence doesn't necessarily mean that Freeman will be automatically sidelined. They have congruent skill sets to share a backfield at the same time.

While Coleman is more explosive and a vertical threat against linebackers, Freeman is an excellent route runner who can also be trusted in pass protection. Over the Falcons' past two games he has eight receptions for 122 yards and a touchdown. His longest play of the playoffs was a 53-yard reception against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.

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The Falcons put the Seahawks in a position where they needed to blitz. Despite their lack of individual talent rushing the passer these days, the Patriots will be reluctant to blitz the Falcons. If they do, you can be sure that Julio Jones will receive extra attention. Freeman's quickness is even more valuable when he doesn't have to go and find space. Running through routes against linebackers is easy for a running back who understands deception and makes aggressive cuts.

In the above play you can see Freeman get wide open underneath against a linebacker in single coverage before making the arriving safety miss. Matt Ryan's pass was poorly thrown. It lofted too much and forced Freeman to wait on it. However, because Freeman had so badly beaten the linebacker, the defender wasn't in position to recover.

The midseason trade of Jamie Collins left the Patriots with no athletic linebackers. This means that Freeman will be left working against the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin if these situations arise. That should be easy offense for Matt Ryan if the quarterback isn't confused by the different looks that Belichick throws at him.

Freeman isn't thought of at the same level as Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, and David Johnson, but that's only because we don't put him there. He has developed from a back who initially looked like he was going to be a situational player at best into someone with a three-down skill set. He's a mismatch player in the passing game and a consistent decision-maker who can create yards in the running game. Freeman is the biggest reason why the Patriots must fear overplaying Julio Jones. He is the Falcons' second-most dangerous weapon on an offense that has proven to be the most dangerous in the league.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 01 Feb 2017

6 comments, Last at 02 Feb 2017, 3:49pm by Anon Ymous

Comments

1
by RobotBoy :: Thu, 02/02/2017 - 7:32am

Except for an odd afternoon some years ago when Miami unveiled the Wildcat, only rarely does Belichick get outschemed. Thus a large talent gap is the best way to beat NE. BB's team building strategy focuses on depth and the NFL's ever-shrinking middle class (in football as in life). This allows NE to thrive in even the worst injury seasons (and in deflated ones) but it also limits the number of star players the team can carry. Atlanta has a solid older core and, following a combination of good position and successful picks from recent drafts, quality starters still on rookie contracts. They also seem to have had decent injury luck this season, which is the biggest downfall of top heavy teams. This puts the Falcons in a position to, perhaps, overwhelm NE not matter how good a game plan BB has designed. I don't know the Atlanta coaching staff that well but from what I've read it's solid and not likely to be bamboozled by BB in the way lesser staffs have been in the past, with the AFC championship game a case in point.
I'm curious if other folks see the same overall talent gap that I do among the starters from both sides.

2
by Otis Taylor89 :: Thu, 02/02/2017 - 9:11am

I don't see the talent gap at all as NE is a very talented team in it's own right. Look at a guy like Allan Branch, who is 6'6" 350lbs and holds up with anyone at the point of attack - he is not talented because nobody used him correctly before getting to NE and he got better once he got there? People in NE went into this year thinking that they were going to be a Top 5 defensive team when you look at the "talent" they had finishing up last year. They started the season and everyone was "Whaaaat?!?", but they finished strong and a real good case can be made that they are a Top 5 defense, except their weak offensive team schedule is actually holding that down.

3
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 02/02/2017 - 9:26am

It's hard to argue that the Giants teams NE has struggled with were really more talented than NE. I'd have given NE the talent advantage in nearly every encounter.

I'm not sure what it was that NYG did, but it worked.

4
by bingo762 :: Thu, 02/02/2017 - 11:01am

Pressure Brady with just the D Line

5
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 02/02/2017 - 3:30pm

Once Gronk went down in 2011 they became much more comparable, though NY won earlier in the year, so they proved capable of overcoming the talent gap even when it existed.

People give NY's pass rush credit for the 2011 SB, but that is overly simplistic to the point of inaccuracy. In fact, NY's defensive line influenced the game more with their long arms in the passing lanes than they did with pass pressure. No Gronk combined with only having one quick twitch guy on the roster played into NY's coverage strategies, forcing Brady to hold onto the ball longer.

Then you have the fact that, for reasons I still can't fully explain, NY gives NE's running game fits. If I had to guess, I'd say that the Patriots OL uses a mobility advantage against most other teams which doesn't work against NY's quicker DL. Maybe?

Special teams was another significant factor. NE's defense really stepped up, but they weren't good enough to keep NY from moving the ball a little per drive. The end result was NE started an inordinate number of possessions inside their 15.

All that said, it still took some self-inflicted wounds (Brady's pick was both a serious underthrow of Gronk and a bad decision given he could have run for a first down, Welker's drop, etc.) as well as some bad fumble recovery luck to put the final nail in the coffin.

6
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 02/02/2017 - 3:49pm

Bill got outschemed a number of times by Rex Ryan. But he has something very few other coaches have, a bug up his ass about the Patriots and a willingness to design what is tantamount to a NE-only playbook.

That is really the best way to neutralize Bill's advantage. Of course, it's hard work to invest that kind of effort into beating one team, particularly when practice time is so limited, and it's arguable that being so Patriot-centric may have diminished Ryan's chances of beating other teams.

But if you've got the talent to do stuff that isn't on film and a willingness to spend time mastering it at the expense of stuff you do more regularly, Bill can be had.