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Atlanta Falcons Freeman a factor in everything as he emerges as NFLs surprise rushing leader
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) runs the ball against Tennessee Titans safety Daimion Stafford (39) in the first half of Sunday's game in Nashville, Tenn. - photo by James Kenney

NFL rushing leader Devonta Freeman has morphed into such a critical cog in Atlanta’s offense that when he doesn’t get the ball in crucial situations, someone has some explaining to do.

The Falcons were clinging to a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter at Tennessee on Sunday when they had a third down at the Titans 1-yard line. Fullback Patrick DeMarco was stopped on third down and Matt Ryan’s fourth-down pass for tight end Jacob Tamme was intercepted.

The Falcons escaped with a 10-7 win, thanks to a late interception by Robenson Therezie. Atlanta will play Tampa Bay on Sunday.

On Monday, the obvious question for coach Dan Quinn was why Freeman, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry while again running for more than 100 yards, wasn’t given the ball on either play.

Quinn said he thought the fullback play would be “a good shot” to score. He said he expected a different defense on fourth down.

“Let’s give (the Titans) credit, they took away a certain coverage they had,” he said.

Quinn stressed the play calls did not indicate a lack of confidence in Freeman at the goal line. It would seem obvious by now that confidence in Freeman, the second-year back out of Florida State, should not be an issue.

“The belief in Davonta, in terms of our mindset and what he can do, he’s a factor in everything,” Quinn said. “Yeah, it would have been great to have that come back.”

Freeman has been the constant for the Falcons (6-1) during a stretch where other parts of the offense have struggled.

Atlanta has eight turnovers in its last three games, including two interceptions by Ryan against the Titans.

Despite the win, it was clear the offense didn’t enjoy the recovery players wanted following the team’s 31-21 loss at New Orleans on Oct. 15.

“We are just in a funk,” said wide receiver Julio Jones. “We have to get out of it. We have to keep battling and keep going and keep trying to get better and fix these things.”

No fix is necessary for Freeman, who ran for 116 yards on 25 carries. He had a 41-yard run called back when receiver Roddy White was penalized for an illegal block.

Freeman became the Falcons’ first player to run for at least 100 yards in three straight games since Michael Turner in 2009.

“I feel good, but I want to get better,” Freeman said Sunday. “I want to always get better and grow. Starting tomorrow I am just going to figure out how I can get better and how I can grow.”

Pending Monday night’s Baltimore-Arizona game, Freeman leads the NFL with 621 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.

“I think Davonta has played awesome, he really has, and he played awesome again,” Ryan said. “His confidence is growing every week, and I think our offensive line’s confidence is growing every week.”

Freeman (5-8, 206) has shown a combination of power and speed.

Quinn said Freeman’s consistency is a product of his running style.

“I think it honestly jumps out in his technique as a running back,” Quinn said. “He takes it one gap at a time. … It can be an outside run but you’ve seen plays with him where it can start outside and come back in … and maybe cut all the way back.”

Quinn said he is not worried about how Freeman will handle increased attention that comes with being the NFL rushing leader because “he just loves to compete. … It’s all going to be about this week and the things he wants to improve on.”

NOTES: Quinn said S William Moore (groin strain) and WR Leonard Hankerson (hamstring) “will be limited for sure” and won’t practice on Wednesday.

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