Atlanta Falcons quarterback T.J. Yates (13) hands the ball off to running back Devonta Freeman (33) during their game against the Miami Dolphins at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 16-10. (USA TODAY Sports: Jason Getz)
FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons know that to rebound from a 4-12 season they will need a rushing attack to blend with the precision passing of quarterback Matt Ryan.
That’s why they were elated to welcome Steven Jackson back to practice last week, but were also happy with the continued fine play of Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman.
When they face the New Orleans Saints in the season opener, the Falcons will present a running back by committee that will include Jackson, Smith, Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman.
“It will be a great way to kick off the season against a division opponent, a very good football team,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “I know our guys will be focused about starting the regular season. It’s about to get real here, real quick.”
Antone Smith continued to shine with more playing time. He took a screen pass 66 yards for a touchdown against Jacksonville in the exhibition season finale.
“I think this goes back to December of last year and we talked about how we had to find a role for Antone because when he touches the ball he makes plays,” Smith said. “When he gets into the open field, he’s a guy who can make something happen.”
He’s earned some carries alongside of Jackson.
Antone Smith caught a short pass from T.J. Yates, broke a pair of tackles and raced 66 yards to the end zone for his first touchdown against Jacksonville. Smith showed off his explosive abilities last season when he tallied 145 yards on five rushes, including a 50-yard touchdown run. He averaged 29 yards per carry and more than 22 yards per offensive touch.
Smith finished the exhibition season with 77 yards on three receptions while adding 36 yards on 19 carries. He averaged more than five yards per touch from scrimmage.
“There are a number of guys who are going to get opportunities to touch the ball in the regular season for us,” Mike Smith said. “The more dynamic guys you have on your roster the better. You can never have too many dynamic players.”
Freeman, a rookie fourth-round pick, also played well. Pass protection concerns may limit his carries early on.
“The big thing for Devonta is going to be getting pass protection in the NFL,” Mike Smith said. “Running backs in the NFL have to be involved in protection. But in terms of when the ball is in his hands, he’s been a very dynamic player in the preseason. He’s been explosive. He runs well behind his pads and he’s got very good vision.”
Freeman rushed for a game-high 42 yards on 12 carries while adding 45 yards on five receptions, including a 21-yard gain against Jacksonville.
He finished the exhibition as the team’s leading rusher as he posted 134 yards on 32 carries (4.2 yards per carry) with one touchdown on the ground. Freeman was also the club’s leading receiver, with 146 yards on 11 catches, including a 57-yard catch and run against Miami.