FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons are careful not to interrupt Devonta Freeman when he’s in a steady rhythm.
Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and the NFL’s highest-paid running back, has earned the right to stay on the field even when teammate Tevin Coleman is antsy and ready to play.
Coleman told coach Dan Quinn as much in last week’s 30-26 victory at Detroit.
Freeman was in a groove. Don’t mess up a good thing.
“When he gets rolling and he’s hot, you don’t want to take him out,” Coleman said. “You want him to keep getting yards because he’s hot right now. He’s got the juice and he’s feeling it. You want him to keep rolling until he gets tired.
“That’s just how we do it.”
Freeman ran 21 times for 106 yards. Coleman had 46 yards on six carries, and the duo combined for 227 yards from scrimmage. The numbers were impressive, but they only provide a glimpse of the big picture.
Freeman is the feature back. Coleman plays a supporting role. But if Coleman gets locked in Sunday when the Falcons (3-0) host Buffalo (2-1), Freeman, whose 2,362 yards rushing are tops in the league since the start of 2015, will step aside and let his friend keep working.
“Once a running back is rolling and rolling, it’s important to let that guy go,” Freeman said. “Me and Tevin understand that.”
Freeman and Coleman are both blessed with quickness, speed and stamina, but Freeman, at 5-foot-9, is four inches shorter than his teammate and better equipped to duck between offensive linemen and keep defenders guessing.
Freeman is not an upright runner. He is compact and keeps his gravity low to read the angles that opponents try to take on tackle attempts. He has exceptional field vision.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, last year’s NFL MVP, is still glowing about a run Freeman made two weeks ago against Green Bay. Freeman took a handoff and paused for a split second at the line of scrimmage to let the defense start moving. He then sliced through a hole and wound back to his left for a 10-yard gain.
“I mean not many people could do that,” Ryan said. “To have the explosiveness that he has, to have the patience that he has, to have the vision that he has — that was an impressive run. Experience helps that, but you’ve got to have some natural just feel to be able to do those things. His feel, his vision is really as good as anybody I’ve been around.”
Freeman loves to show his toughness, too, as he did last week against Miles Killebrew. The Detroit safety came up knock Freeman out of bounds, but the running back lowered his head and knocked Killebrew backward on the Atlanta sideline.
Freeman immediately dropped the ball and took a couple of quick steps over to look down at the defender.
“It’s my will against theirs,” Freeman said. “If you’re in my way, I feel like you’re trying to take something away from me. My thing is I can’t let that happen.”
He’s far from a finished product, though. Freeman is still smarting over a missed block assignment in the Super Bowl, and he says it’s a mistake he must live with forever. New England’s Dont’a Hightower strip-sacked Ryan, gave the ball back to the Patriots, and the Falcons were doomed.
Freeman says he’s put in countless hours of practice and film study to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.
“My teammates need me to be at the top of my game in every situation,” he said. “They’re counting on me, and I’m counting on them. Nobody can get it done by himself. It takes each and every one us doing their jobs and doing it right.”
Notes: WR Julio Jones (back) was a limited participant in practice Friday and is listed as questionable for the game. Jones said that he’s certain he will play. … Right tackle Ryan Schraeder (concussion), FS Ricardo Allen (concussion), DE Vic Beasley (hamstring), DE Courtney Upshaw (ankle) and RB Terron Ward (neck, shoulder) have been ruled out. DT Jack Crawford (shoulder) has been cleared to play.