FLOWERY BRANCH — Devonta Freeman reclaimed the form last week that earned him his first Pro Bowl trip.
The Falcons finally restored balance to their offense in last week’s 23-17 win at Jacksonville, ending Atlanta’s six-game losing streak. The team threw 35 passes and had 33 runs, including Freeman’s 25 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown.
Freeman and the Falcons (7-7) now face the difficult challenge of maintaining similar balance on Sunday against the undefeated Carolina Panthers (14-0). Carolina ranks third in total defense and sixth against the run.
It has been only two weeks since the Panthers crushed the Falcons 38-0 on Dec. 13, giving Atlanta its first shutout loss in 11 years. Freeman said he’ll never forget the loss. He had a 22-yard gain on the Falcons’ first drive but managed only 18 yards on his other 11 carries.
“That left a bitter taste in my mouth and I’ll never forget that. Never,” Freeman said Wednesday.
“That game like that, no matter how many championships you may win, no matter the games you’ve won, I’m going to always remember that loss. It’ll stick with me probably forever.”
It was the low point of a streak of offensive struggles for the Falcons following their 5-0 start. The Falcons fell behind the Panthers early and became one-dimensional when they abandoned the running game.
The offense regrouped with a strong start, capped by Freeman’s 5-yard scoring run, on its first drive against Jacksonville last week.
It was Freeman’s first rushing touchdown since his flurry of nine scores in the first six weeks of the season. He also had seven catches for 45 yards.
Freeman’s 12 touchdowns — 10 rushing, two receiving — matches Arizona’s David Johnson for the NFL lead among running backs. Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill is the only other back with 10 rushing touchdowns.
Offensive tackle Jake Matthews said it’ll be important to get the ball to Freeman against Carolina.
“That’s one of the main things that allow us to be successful, having that balance between run and pass,” Matthews said. “Devonta is a really big threat for our offense running the ball. We’ve got to continue making plays because he’s one of the guys on our offense who can do it all.”
Freeman kept the offense balanced early in the season. He had back-to-back games with three rushing touchdowns and ran for more than 100 yards in four of five games.
“Typically when you’re able to stay balanced, it means you’re either ahead or you’re in the ballgame,” quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday. “That’s going to be important for us. Balance is huge. I think we play our best when we’re balanced.”
Despite the reclaimed balance on offense, the Falcons still have room to improve. They dominated the clock in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars but had to settle for two field goals by Shayne Graham.
The 23 points was the high mark for the Falcons since their 5-0 start.
Freeman said he was handing out Christmas gifts for a family on Tuesday when coach Dan Quinn called him with the Pro Bowl news.
Freeman said Quinn said “‘Tell your mom to get ready to fly’ I’m like, for what? He said ‘You’re going to Hawaii.’ I had the biggest smile ever.”
He said he has never visited Hawaii.
“I’m going in the end of January, though,” he said, smiling.
NOTES: LB Paul Worrilow (knee) was limited in practice after not playing last week against the Jaguars. Offensive guard Chris Chester (shoulder) was held out. Quinn said he hopes both can fully participate in Thursday’s session. DT Grady Jarrett (shoulder) was limited on Wednesday.