Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Atlanta's dynamic RB duo will test Bills' edge - The Buffalo News

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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Atlanta's dynamic RB duo will test Bills' edge

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There is no end to the headaches the Atlanta Falcons' offense gives to opposing defensive coordinators.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is the reigning NFL most valuable player. Receiver Julio Jones was first-team All-Pro each of the past two years. Atlanta led the NFL in scoring last year at 33.8 ppg, and its 6.69 yards per play average was better than any team the past five years.

Then there are running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They may not be household names to every NFL fan, but they form the most explosive running back combination, if not the best, in the NFL.

"Coleman just flat out runs away from people," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said before the Super Bowl in February. "Freeman is hard to tackle."

Freeman arguably is the best pure, outside zone runner in the league. He's not as good all-around as LeSean McCoy or Ezekiel Elliott. But he has the most rushing yards of any NFL back the past two-plus seasons. And nobody hits the outside zone runs better. At 5-foot-8, 206 pounds, he has a compact body similar to that of Frank Gore. He has a knack for pressing the edge of the defense on wide runs, planting his foot and slashing upfield.

The Bills' outside run defense will be severely tested on Sunday. Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards last season, caught 54 passes and scored 13 touchdowns.

Coleman is a home-run hitter with 4.39 speed in the 40-yard dash. His numbers aren't crazy because Atlanta has so many weapons, but he is a match-up nightmare both as a receiver out of the backfield and lined up as a wideout. Coleman averaged 13.6 yards a catch last season, had eight catches of 20-plus yards and produced 11 TDs.

The Bills' linebackers and safeties will be stressed trying to cover Freeman and Coleman out of the backfield.

"Those two guys, Coleman and Devonta Freeman, are so versatile for us," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said before the season. "Catching the football in the backfield is going to be critical for us. I think those guys are two of the most talented guys in the league and are three down backs. They catch the ball really well for us. . . . Their receiving has taken an even bigger step up this training camp and offseason."

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Good running backs often are draft-day bargains. Atlanta got Freeman out of Florida State in the fourth round in 2014. It got Coleman out of Indiana in the third round in 2015.

The 30,000-foot view: Falcons owner Arthur Blank gets high marks for running a stable franchise, hiring good people and getting out of the way of the football department. Blank, who made his fortune as co-founder of Home Depot, lured General Manager Thomas Dimitroff away from the Patriots in 2008. Dimitroff had the good fortune of making Matt Ryan his first draft choice (third overall), and Atlanta went to the playoffs four of Ryan's first five seasons. When coach Mike Smith was fired after the 2014 season, Blank resisted the urge to purge Dimitroff, too. Give Dimitroff credit for subjugating his ego and relinquishing some power when Quinn was hired. The two directed the Falcons to the NFC title last season. Atlanta hits picks. The four drafts from 2013 to 2016 have produced 14 starters or key contributors (Buffalo has five from those drafts).

Game-breaker: WR Julio Jones. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and with a 4.39 40-time, Jones has Hall-of-Fame size and speed. (Sammy Watkins ran 4.43.) The No. 6 pick in the 2011 draft has a career average of 96 receiving yards a game, No. 1 in NFL history. He is the best receiver in the league running in-breaking routes – slants, crosses, posts because he's so big and fast. It's hard for a cornerback to play outside leverage against him. Look for the Bills to play a safety over the top of his side almost every play.

Weak link: Pass protection (maybe) and run defense (maybe). The Falcons are a powerhouse without glaring weaknesses. Defenses that have been able to put hits on Ryan have had some success. Right guard Wes Schweitzer will be making his fourth career start. Left tackle Jake Matthews is only average. Ryan Schreader is a good right tackle but missed last week with a concussion. His backup (Ty Sambrailo) is shaky. Atlanta ranked 25th vs. the run last season. But they added 350-pound Dontari Poe in free agency, and he forms a quality DT combination with Grady Jarrett.

Cover 3: Quinn came to Atlanta after two seasons as Seattle's defensive coordinator, and he brought the Seahawks' Cover 3 defense with him. Atlanta has acquired a fleet of fast linebackers to chase down wide runs and check-down passes. Middle linebacker Deion Jones runs 4.39. He's only 222 pounds. Maybe the Bills can play physical with inside zone runs.

Out a month: Atlanta's top edge rusher, Vic Beasley, is out a month with a hamstring injury. He's the fastest edge rusher (4.53) to enter the draft the past five years. He led the NFL in sacks last year with 15.5. Capable veteran Adrian Clayborn, better at rushing than run defending, fills his spot.

Ironman: Atlanta guard Andy Levitre, who played his first four seasons in Buffalo, has never missed a game in his eight-plus seasons in the NFL. Levitre is a capable player but the Bills made the right decision not to overpay at the guard spot in letting him leave in 2013. Tennessee paid $32.5 million to Levitre for two seasons, decided it wanted to be more physical at guard, then traded him to the Falcons. Levitre makes $7.8 million a year, 16th at guard on Spotrac.com. The Bills' Richie Incognito is at $5.25 million a year, 24th.

Stat for the road: Atlanta had the lowest blitz percentage in the NFL last season, sending five or more at the QB on just 17.1 percent of pass plays, according to Football Outsiders. The Falcons blitzed Tom Brady on just one play in the Super Bowl, by The News' count. Brady (aka He Who Shall Not Be Blitzed) hit Chris Hogan for a key completion on that play during the Pats' furious comeback.

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