2016 unit-by-unit analysis: The running backs

Atlanta Falcons' Devonta Freeman dives in the end zone after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game against the New England Patriots Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Atlanta Falcons’ Devonta Freeman dives in the end zone after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game against the New England Patriots Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons reclaimed the NFC South title and became NFC champions for just the second time in franchise history.

The Falcons, calling themselves a Brotherhood, had a major breakthrough in Dan Quinn’s second season as head coach before collapsing in the Super Bowl LI in grand fashion against New England by blowing a 25-point lead.

Falcons RB Tevin Coleman stretches for a touchdown while fighting off the tackle attempt of former UGA linebacker Alec Ogletree during Sunday's game against the Rams. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill )

Falcons RB Tevin Coleman stretches for a touchdown while fighting off the tackle attempt of former UGA linebacker Alec Ogletree during Sunday’s game against the Rams. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill )

The offense soared to new heights and the young and marauding defense made great strides over the course of the season, but that didn’t keep defensive coordinator Richard Smith and Bryan Cox from being fired.

Here’s the second installment of our unit-by-unit review of the 2016 team. Yesterday, we took a look at the quarterbacks. Today, the running backs:

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

RUNNING BACKS

Who: Devonta Freeman. Backups – Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward. Fullback – Patrick DiMarco.

Contract/free agent situation: Freeman is set to make $1.838 million in 2017, but would like a contract extension. Coleman is set to make $680,000 in 2017. Ward is set to make $615,000 in 2017. DiMarco, a two-time Pro Bowler, is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

What they did in season: Freeman (227 carries for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Coleman (118 for 520 and eight touchdowns) combined to rush for 1,619 yards and 19 touchdowns. They also caught 85 passes for 883 yards and five touchdowns. In all, they combined to amass 2,502 yards from scrimmage. Both have the speed and vision to thrive in the offense. Coleman had a breakthrough season after he struggled with his health and ball security as a rookie. Both backs were nightmares for linebackers trying to cover them in the passing game. Ward, a solid backup, had 31 carries for 151 yards (4.9 yards per carry). DiMarco is a steady pass catching and solid lead blocker.

What they did in postseason:  Freeman averaged 4.2 yards per carry and Coleman average 4 yards per carry. Coleman went down with a key ankle injury in the Super Bowl and Freeman missed a blitz pickup with the Super Bowl on the line.



Comment: Freeman was more durable in 2016 as he received more rest from Coleman. Both backs benefitted from the offensive line starting all 18 games together. Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan often said that both of the running backs were interchangeable. The Falcons also lost legendary running backs coach Bobby Turner, who went to San Francisco with Shanahan. Keith Carter, the former assistant offensive line coach for the past two seasons, will take over as the running backs coach. Carter played tight end, “H” back and fullback at UCLA. He has held several assistant coaching positions for NCAA teams and served as an offensive quality control coach with the Seahawks for two seasons before joining the Falcons. He is the grandson of Pro Football Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti.

RYAN’S MESSAGE TO THE FANS

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