FLOWERY BRANCH -- While Atlanta is among nine teams with a perfect record, its 2-0 start to the season hasn’t come without a few blemishes. As the Falcons prepare to face Dallas (another one of the NFL’s 2-0 teams) on the road Sunday, they’re going to have to find a way to slow down running back Lance Dunbar.
Dunbar hasn’t been a factor carrying the football. He has gained just 8 yards on one carry. In terms of catching the ball out of the backfield, however, Dunbar has been one of the most dangerous backs in the league.
In Dallas’ opener against the New York Giants, Dunbar caught eight passes for 70 yards. He followed that with three catches for 45 yards against Philadelphia. Through two weeks, Dunbar ranks tied for second among NFL running backs with 11 receptions and third with 115 receiving yards.
“Not only will they split him out wide, you can see how dangerous he (Dunbar) is as a receiver,” Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn said Wednesday. “Fortunately for us, we get to go against a guy every day as a receiver who challenges us all the time in Devonta (Freeman). When you get a chance with our own guys, with those kind of unique skills, at least going into the game you’re facing somebody that has that kind of receiving skills at running back when you move him outside, it’s just like having another receiver. We have a lot of respect for him in terms of what he can do in the passing game.”
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During training camp, the Falcons expanded Freeman’s role as a receiver. He often was used split wide (just as the Cowboys have used Dunbar) and became an incredible red-zone threat through the air. He has caught seven passes this season for 63 yards. But when it comes to practicing against Freeman, that hasn’t helped the Falcons stop opposing running backs through the air.
Eagles running backs Darren Sproles, DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews combined for 14 catches and 111 yards. Sproles was the most effective with seven grabs for 76 yards, but Murray caught a touchdown pass as one of his four receptions.
Shane Vereen and Rashad Jennings combined for 10 catches for 90 yards in the Giants’ loss to Atlanta. Vereen caught eight passes for 76 yards.
The Falcons’ defense has allowed a combined 199 yards on 24 catches from opposing running backs. No defense in the league ranks worse among pass-catching running backs. Only three running backs have gained 70 yards or more receiving in a game this season. Dunbar did it in the opener for the Cowboys, and the Falcons have allowed it twice.
Atlanta ranked 28th last year when it gave up 785 yards through the air to opposing running backs. Even though Quinn has improved this Falcons’ defense, he still hasn’t found an answer in regard to stopping rushers from gaining yards through the air. Or quite possibly, the Falcons have looked woefully poor in this case because they have had to face two of the top pass-catching running backs in the league to start the season.
It won’t get any easier Sunday when the Falcons match up against Dunbar and a Cowboys offense without Dez Bryant and Tony Romo. Without those two weapons, Dunbar could be even busier.