The NFL Should Follow the Falcons’ Example at Running Back

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman formed the NFL's best one-two backfield punch in 2016. How did they do it?

Something about the grotesque has captured the human imagination for millennia. Especially in films like Alien and Jaws, the horrifying and haunting fascinate people all over the world.

I’m no expert when it comes to monster movies, but I loved the classic King Kong, and (guilty secret) the recent remakes. I have no idea why, but something about the majestic, enormous, terrifying presence of the ape-lord of Skull Island awes me -- even when he’s busy smashing New York City. The sheer power, the feel of a force of nature unleashed, doesn’t scare me; it fascinates me.

For opposing defenses facing the Atlanta Falcons during their historically offensive 2016, it was also like staring down a force of nature.

The Falcons rampaged across the NFL landscape last season, and while their passing attack is most widely commended for giving coordinators fits, Atlanta is doing running back right, as well. The way they have assembled and used their run game makes the rest of the league’s backfields look like the shambling hordes from Night of the Living Dead, while the Falcons themselves climb skyscrapers with ease.

With the Falcons’ backs leaving nothing but rubble in their wake last year, the rest of the league should take note of how to manage a modern run game.


If you hear far-off rumbling and see water reverberating in your glass, don’t worry; it’s not a T-Rex loose from its cage. More likely than not it’s the sound of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman breaking free from the defense and thundering for 1,928 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last season on a ridiculously efficient 421 carries.

In fact, when we type in those parameters to our Pro Football Reference (PFR) search and look at teams with at least 1,900 yards and 20 scores on 450 carries or fewer in a season since the 1970 merger, we find 10 other results. Those teams are shown below.

Year Team Lead Rusher Att Yds TD
1986 DAL Tony Dorsett 447 1,969 21
1989 DET Barry Sanders* 421 2,053 23
2001 STL Marshall Faulk* 416 2,027 20
2003 KC Priest Holmes* 446 1,929 32
2003 PHI Brian Westbrook 417 2,015 23
2008 NYJ Thomas Jones 422 2,004 20
2010 HOU Arian Foster 423 2,042 20
2011 CAR DeAngelo Williams 445 2,408 26
2011 PHI LeSean McCoy 450 2,276 20
2013 MIN Adrian Peterson 423 2,081 23
2016 ATL Devonta Freeman 421 1,928 20

You’ll notice that each year features a big-time name as its lead back, heroic players that include Hall of Famers Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, and Priest Holmes. That Freeman and Coleman are even able to have their names uttered in the same breath as these titans is a testament to how effective 2016 was for them.

Perhaps even more amazing, 133 player seasons with minimums of 500 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, and 10 total touchdowns have occurred since the merger. Only the 2016 Atlanta Falcons had two of these rushers on the same team in the same year. The Kyle Shanahan offense reached its inevitable conclusion last season, peak running back play was achieved, and while they’re nearly certain to be less efficient next year (every team on the list was), the Falcons’ deployment of their backfield weaponry is remarkable.

But how did they assemble one of the most dangerous backfields in NFL history?

It Came From Beneath the Sea

The key to the Falcons’ backfield success is somewhat simple: it’s how versatile the dynamic duo of Freeman and Coleman are.

We can size up their impact on the NFL by looking at their value through the lens of numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, a value score that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

When we search the numberFire database for running backs from 2000 onward, specifically those with at least 100 rushing attempts and 40 targets in a season, we come up with 370 player seasons.

Freeman and Coleman’s 2016 percentile ranks -- the percent of other players that they are better than -- in Rushing and Reception NEP per play and Rushing and Reception Success Rates (the percent of plays resulting in positive NEP) among these players are shown below.

Year Name Rush NEP/P Rush Succ % Rec NEP/P Rec Succ %
2016 Devonta Freeman 91st 82nd 73rd 77th
2016 Tevin Coleman 79th 23rd 99th 39th

They talk about “thunder-and-lightning” backfields, but this is the truly effective way to do it.

Freeman brings both the strong interior rushing presence (ranking highly in Rushing NEP per attempt) and consistency (over the 75th percentile in both Rushing and Reception Success Rate). It’s not like Freeman is averse to the big play, but his bread-and-butter is moving the chains both on the ground and through the air. He is the workhorse, three-down lead back that an offense can rely on.

Coleman adds the spice, the zip, to this backfield. While not as impactful in Rushing NEP per attempt, he’s still a quality contributor when Freeman needs a breather. Amazingly, though, Coleman is in the bottom 25 percent of running backs over the last 17 years in Rushing Success Rate; he’s a classic speed guy and home-run hitter in his carries. Not a guy you want to rely on for 300 touches a season, Coleman is the perfect fire to Freeman’s ice, keeping opponents on their toes to not creep up.

Add to that the fact that Coleman outdid even superstar David Johnson in Reception NEP per target in 2016, and you can see why opposing defensive coordinators just threw up their hands in bewilderment.

While his 39th percentile Reception Success Rate looks bad, however, this was actually due to Coleman’s use this year. The Falcons took to splitting their running backs out wide or in the slot to get mismatches in space on linebackers, and this article from Inside the Pylon’s Joseph Ferraiola helps illustrate that. Freeman ran a lot of swings and digs (short routes), so his Success Rate was higher; Coleman ran a variety of routes including corners and posts, so he was targeted further downfield and has a Success Rate that looks more like a downfield wide receiver’s.

It seems obvious to use weapons in versatile ways, but none of this would have happened if the Falcons had tried to be conventional with their backfield.

The Monster Squad

We can’t ever point to the steals a team gets in a draft, or the development work they do and say “See, just do it that way,” but a small part of the Falcons’ success has been finding versatile rushers without investing a ton of free agent money or early-round draft picks.

In 2014, Freeman was selected in the fourth round of the draft (103rd overall), and Coleman was picked in the third round of the 2015 draft (73rd overall). If recent success is any indicator, that means that 2017 fifth-round pick Brian Hill (156th overall) could be a stud in the making.

If former offensive coordinator (now San Francisco 49ers head coach) Kyle Shanahan hadn’t decided to maximize his athletes’ abilities, these former mid-round picks would have been run-of-the-mill guys in a non-dynamic committee. Instead, the Falcons have been patient in acquiring multipurpose talent that fits their system, and deliberate in finding ways to turn loose every ounce of those players' impact.

If the NFL wants to move its ground game into the 21st Century, they’ll follow Atlanta’s lead and stop trying to make B-movie versions of old, stale backfield plans.