The Atlanta Falcons have a dynamic duo at running back.
Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards, averaged 4.8 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns. Second-year backup Tevin Coleman had a big year, too, with 520 rushing yards, a 4.4-yard average and scored eight touchdowns. He averaged an impressive 2.8 yards after contact, according to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus. Freeman averaged only 2.2.
It’s not just the 1,599 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, though. Freeman added 54 receptions for 462 yards (8.6 average) and four touchdowns and Coleman chipped in 31 receptions for 421 yards (13.6 average) and three touchdowns. Among players with more than 32 catches (two per game), Freeman was fourth in the league with a catch rate of 83.1 percent. Coleman was at 77.5 percent.
“Both Devonta and Tevin are as good as it gets in this league,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We’re lucky that they’re both so versatile. They can run the ball first and second down, they pass protect really well for us, and both of them are excellent out of the backfield catching the football. So, we’ve got the complete package back there. Both those guys have done a great job.”
Added together, they gained 2,482 yards and 26 touchdowns during the regular season, then combined for 204 yards and two touchdowns (102 rushing, 102 receiving and one touchdown in each phase) vs. Seattle.
“You don’t have to watch much tape,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Freeman is kind of a stop, start, downhill. He’s got a real physical play style. You have to do a really good job of tackling him. He broke some tackles in their playoff game last week against the Seahawks, who I think are one of the better tackling teams in the league. Coleman, he’s got that speed where he can really stretch you and get on the outside, the perimeter. You’ve got to be careful, because he can break the big one with his speed. They’ve got different running styles, and I think they complement each other.”
Green Bay’s got a similarly versatile weapon in Ty Montgomery. In his limited sample size, he rushed for 457 yards and would have led the NFL with 5.9 yards per carry had he reached the minimum threshold for attempts. And, of course, because of his receiver background, he adds that element with 44 receptions for 348 yards (7.9 average). He finished 14th with a catch rate of 78.6 percent. He’s a matchup nightmare. If you’re Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith, do you keep a linebacker in the game to stop Montgomery in the running game? That tactic turns into a mismatch when he motions out of the backfield and lines up as a receiver. If you keep an extra defensive back on the field, then he’s got the skill and the blocking to pile up yards on the ground.
“When he’s on the field in certain situations, there’s an indicator of how they treat him,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Different teams during the course of the season for a while treated him as a wide receiver and adjusted their personnel accordingly. But you’ve seen a lot more treat him as a running back lately, which can allow for some good matchups. We had him on the scramble that I ended up hitting him for a first down early in that game against Dallas where we were running a double move on Sean Lee. He’s an extremely skilled player. He’s obviously a running back with the ball, but he can run around like a receiver because he’s played receiver for a number of years, too.
“I’m really proud of his effort. His focus, you know, we often say that tight end is the toughest mentally because they sometimes have to be a receiver, sometimes a fullback and, obviously, sometimes a blocker, but what Ty is doing right now is pretty outstanding because he’s playing a number of different spots. Obviously, a running back and doing that stuff, but he’s also catching screen passes, he’s running routes as a receiver, so he’s doing a great job mentally of really grasping the things we need to do.”
It's worth noting neither Montgomery nor Coleman played in the first matchup between these teams.
-- During Green Bay’s eight-game winning streak, it’s faced teams that ranked third (Philadelphia), fourth (Seattle), eighth (Dallas), ninth (Detroit), 12th (Minnesota) and 14th (New York) in the Packer Report Special Teams Rankings.
Up next for the Packers, who surged to 17th with a strong finishing kick to the season, are the Falcons, who checked in 13th but are coming off a poor game against Seattle. Devin Hester averaged 38.8 yards per kickoff return with a long of 78. They lost the net-punt battle by 17 yards per kick.
For the season, punter Matt Bosher ranked sixth with a net average of 41.6 yards and second in touchbacks on kickoffs. Kicker Matt Bryant was 34-of-37 on field goals, including 6-of-8 from 50-plus yards.
“I’m sure some of it is dome-related, but they play outside, also,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said of the kicking production. “But they do a great job. (Falcons coordinator) Keith Armstrong has been in this league a long time, he’s as good as there is in this league, and their guys play to his personality. They kick and punt (with) good high hang times. They can put it in the end zone or he can try to make you return it, whichever they decide they want to do.”
Eric Weems, a 10-year vet, averaged 23.0 yards on kickoff returns, 11.4 yards on punt returns and paced the team with 15 tackles.
“He is a guy that’s just hard, hard, hard to get on the ground,” Zook said. “He leads their team in special teams tackles, he’s a fullback on the punt team, he makes tackles on the kickoff team. He’s probably their bell cow on special teams, and obviously returns both punts and kickoffs. I made a complete clip just to go back through the games of this year of people missing him, bouncing off of him. We’ve talked all week to our guys, we’ve got to get him on the ground.”
-- Dallas’ rookie class dominated the headlines with quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. But Atlanta’s rookie class has played a key role and could very well determine the direction of the franchise.
Safety Keanu Neal was Atlanta’s first-round pick. He finished second among all rookie defenders with 105 tackles. His five forced fumbles not only tied for third in the league but tied for the most by a rookie defensive back in NFL history. Linebacker Deion Jones was Atlanta’s second-round pick. He led all NFL rookies with 106 tackles and tied for the NFL lead among all linebackers with 13 passes defensed. Tight end Austin Hooper was Atlanta’s third-round pick. He played more down the stretch and caught 19 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was Atlanta’s fourth-round pick and has been used as a coverage stopper. All three will be factors in containing Montgomery and tight end Jared Cook.
“Really impressed with them in the first game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Neal and Jones. “You can really see it in the dome and on that turf. They have great range, fly around, very instinctive. Getting ready to play these guys the second time around, they’re very comfortable and confident in that defense and making a lot more plays on video.”
Green Bay, by contrast, has gotten minimal contributions from its rookies. While first-round defensive tackle Kenny Clark has played progressively better down the stretch, second-round offensive tackle Jason Spriggs hasn’t had to play since November, third-round outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell didn’t play a single snap on defense against Dallas and fourth-round inside linebacker Blake Martinez has gone from starting to playing one snap on defense vs. Dallas.
-- The Falcons will be at home but the advantage isn’t overwhelming. Including the playoff game, they went 6-3 at the Georgia Dome. Green Bay went 2-2 indoors, including back-to-back wins against Detroit in Week 17 and Dallas last week. Since Rodgers took over in 2008, the Packers are 8-10 in indoor games against teams that reached the playoffs.
“It’s really loud in there,” Rodgers said. “Whether that’s all natural or not is yet to be seen. It definitely creates some problems as far as snap counts and silent count and communication. The way to combat that is you’ve got to start strong and then push through the response. Usually, with any great homefield advantage, if the opposing team starts strong, the fans will look for any opportunity to get back in the game. Last week, we went up 21-3 and they clawed back and scored a touchdown and you would’ve thought it was them ahead by 11 instead of down by 11. They want anything to get back into the game and get that energy up again, so you’ve got to start fast and you’ve got to push through that response and finish strong.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.