FLOWERY BRANCH — Devonta Freeman was a breakout star in 2015 as a dual-threat player who more than doubled the carries and yards rushing of any other Falcons running back.
Freeman no longer is an every-down back for Atlanta (1-1). Tevin Coleman has emerged as a near equal to Freeman in the backfield. Like Freeman, Coleman also is effective as both a runner and receiver, lending more versatility to the Falcons’ offense entering Monday night’s game at New Orleans (0-2).
Freeman and Coleman combined for 164 total yards in last week’s 35-28 win at Oakland. It was the second straight week the tandem topped 150 yards.
“They’re a monster together,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Thursday. “They love battling and competing. It was great to see them both really getting in the action over the last two weeks.”
Giving Coleman a larger role wasn’t an obvious call for Quinn, considering Freeman’s big success last season when he ran for more than 1,000 with 11 touchdowns and trailed only All-Pro receiver Julio Jones on the team with 73 catches.
Quinn’s plan is to keep Freeman fresh by utilizing Coleman’s speed, providing a change of pace to the shifty Freeman.
The running back tandem has played a big role in the diversification of the Falcons’ offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan already has completed passes to 11 receivers, including nine against the Raiders.
Freeman has 28 carries, only eight more than Coleman, for 113 yards. Freeman said enjoyed the heavy workload in 2015 but doesn’t mind sharing the job with Coleman — as long as Atlanta is winning.
“If it works, don’t try to fix it,” Freeman said. “Whatever we’ve got to do to win. Whatever I’ve got to do to help my team win, that’s what I’m all about.”
Coleman said he competes with Freeman through the week and cheers for him in games.
“In practice we’re competing against each other to make each other better,” Coleman said. “He’s still my boy. If he makes a big play, of course I’m going to be the first one down there to tell him ‘good job.’”
The Falcons have plays for each back to line up wide as receivers as well as behind Ryan. That gives Ryan more weapons — and gives opposing coaches more worries.
“It’s important to what they’re doing offensively,” said Saints coach Sean Payton. “Both backs are explosive. We know them both well from the draft. Coleman is kind of more of a slasher, straight-line speed guy.”
Payton said the Falcons “do a great job, as good as anyone” in using the running backs in multiple looks.
“So just simulating that speed of the running game and the angles with which it hits is always one of the challenges,” he said.
Some teams may line up running backs outside just to spread out the defense. Ryan said defenses have to respect the threat posed by Freeman and Coleman.
“It’s huge,” Ryan said. “We’re not putting those guys out to spread anything out. We’re putting them out to throw it to them. Both those guys have showcased just how talented they are with the ball in their hand.”
NOTES: Jones (calf) was held out of practice for the second straight day. Quinn said he anticipates Jones “participating in some things” on Saturday and playing on Monday night “unless there’s a setback.” … SS Keanu Neal (knee) was cleared for full participation, increasing the chances the first-round pick will make his debut after missing the first two games. … WR Mohamed Sanu (ankle) and DE Brooks Reed (shoulder) also had full clearance.