Maybe it was a preview of things to come for Devonta Freeman.
In the third quarter of last Sunday’s 19-17 win at Carolina, the Atlanta Falcons rookie running back took a handoff, exploded a few steps up the middle, then made a quick cut left while following a block from pulling guard Jon Asamoah. Freeman made a safety miss, made another quick cut in front of a block by receiver Julio Jones, then stiff-armed veteran safety Roman Harper en route to a 15-yard gain.
"That’s what I do," Freeman said confidently. "That’s my game. Once I feel the game out and understand everything, I feel like if you just let me go out there and play, I’m going to dominate. I’m going to do my job. I’m going to go out there and contribute."
Freeman should get ample opportunity to prove his value for the remainder of the season. The Falcons lost a key part of their running back rotation when speedy Antone Smith suffered a season-ending broken leg last Sunday. The loss of Smith means the Falcons will transition from a four-man running back rotation to a trio of Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Freeman.
Expect Freeman to be the primary beneficiary of the redistribution of carries following Smith’s injury.
"Injuries are going to happen all the time," Freeman said. "I’ve been hurt so many times in my career. I broke my ankle three times; broken hip. I’ve sprained my ankles a lot. So I understand what [Smith] is going through and all the pain, especially when you have a passion for football.
"For me, I just want to go out there and help the team as much as I can and contribute to this team’s success, which I think we’re going to have a lot of success. I just plan on going out there and being consistent, competing, being physical, and doing what I do best."
Freeman had a career-high 11 carries (for 12 yards) during a 56-14 blowout of Tampa Bay in Week 3. He has 35 carries for 147 yards (4.2 yards per carry) through 10 games along with a 7-yard touchdown reception against Detroit.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter talked about what Freeman brings to the running game.
"Well Devonta has an explosive running style," Koetter said. "He hits the hole fast. You saw when he got out into the open field on the one the other night, he was able to make one guy miss and then kind of run through a second guy. He’s just got an explosive style.
"Usually, at the running back position, this thing sorts itself out earlier in the season. It’s unfortunate. We hate to lose Antone because he’s such a valuable player in both the offensive aspect and in the special teams aspect. Now we’re splitting three guys instead of four, so both Devonta and Jacquizz should see their time go up."
Coach Mike Smith was disappointed with the lack of efficiency in the run game last week against Carolina as the Falcons averaged just 3.2 yards per rush. Koetter attributed it to a few breakdowns plus the fact that the Falcons were up against two of the league’s top linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
The Falcons have inserted Gabe Carimi as an extra blocker in the run game, while tight end Levine Toilolo has drastically improved as a run blocker. But they still rank 24th in the league in rushing, averaging 96.1 rushing yards per game.
This Sunday, the Falcons will face a Cleveland team banged up at linebacker and struggling to stop the run. The Browns rank 30th in the league in run defense and allow 142.1 rushing yards per game. They allowed 213 rushing yards -- 156 to rookie Alfred Blue -- in a 23-7 loss to Houston last week.
"They’ve lost three starters in the last two weeks, so every team has its injury issues as this point of the year," Koetter said. "I did watch the Houston game and I’m not sure what (the Browns) exact issue was in that game. Every team is a little bit different in how they attack. ... We try to run the ball every week, and we’ll try to run this week as well."
The Falcons still count on Jackson to set a physical tone, although he missed some practice time Thursday with an illness. Maybe Freeman will inject a little more life into the running game Sunday and help the Falcons get to the second level more consistently.