FLOWERY BRANCH -- In recent memory -- and let’s establish recent memory as the period since general manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in town in 2008 -- the Atlanta Falcons’ offense frequently has been paced on the success of its “Big Three.”
When Julio Jones arrived on the scene as a rookie in 2011, he became the third part of quarterback Matt Ryan’s “Big Three.” Jones, along with tight end Tony Gonzalez and fellow receiver Roddy White, were close to unstoppable force that could move the ball at will down the field.
From 2011 to 2013 (when Gonzalez retired), the trio combined for 685 catches, 8,759 yards receiving and 61 touchdown catches. Defenses had to make tough decisions when they played the Falcons. To shut down White and Gonzalez, Jones was left somewhat free to wreak havoc. Pile coverage on the wideouts Jones and White, and Gonzalez could move the chains as well as any tight end to ever play.
Rarely did a team find a way to effectively slow down all three weapons at the same time.
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With Gonzalez gone and White steadily declining due to age, the Falcons haven’t found a way to replicate the “Big Three” or the output it provided to propel Atlanta into the top 10 among NFL offenses.
Something happened, however, when the Falcons were in Dallas to provide hope for the creation of another terrifying offensive trio. Running back Devonta Freeman, for the first time in his career, surpassed the century mark in yardage on the ground and put up 141 yards on 30 carries. Not only was he successful for the entire game, he looked like an improved back.
Freeman had a burst and quickness that he hadn’t showed since being taken in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. The initial eruption allowed Freeman to get outside and turn the corner to move upfield. It also gave him the pace he needed to break through the line when he ran between the tackles.
The 5-foot-8 running back also showed a degree of hammer-like strength that hadn’t been apparent in the past. Instead of arm tackles bringing him down or bigger defenders pushing Freeman around, he was a battering ram. After just 33 yards rushing after initial contact in the first two weeks of the season, Freeman netted 60 against the Cowboys.
“We always knew from Devonta, the toughness, the competitor, we all got a chance to see it, where he just kept battling back,” head coach Dan Quinn on Wednesday said. “One of the ways we describe finishing is doing right longer. If you see how tight he had the ball and how aggressive he finished his runs, he did right longer, and I love that about his game.”
Add Freeman’s three touchdowns and 141 yards on the ground against the Cowboys to Jones’ 12 catches for 164 yards and two scores, and you have the makings of another three-headed monster if you factor in Ryan, who keeps driving the offensive bus and leading the Falcons on game-winning drives.
The Falcons posted 438 yards of total offense in Week 3, and only two NFL teams have gained more yards this season with the ball in their hands. Jones might be the best receiver in the game, and Ryan continues to knock on the door of the other elite-level passers in the league.
If Freeman can continue the level of play he showed against the Cowboys, the Falcons will have that dangerous trio again on offense. But that’s a big “if.”
Prior to Week 3, Freeman’s best game as a pro was a 2014 game when he ran for 38 yards on four carries. He hasn’t shown enough to be labeled a proven weapon for the Falcons. But Freeman did show enough upside against the Cowboys to wonder if this now might return to earlier levels of uncontainable efficiency.