Last week at Falcons practice, ahead of their big game against Denver, several players told me how offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had a better grasp on his personnel in Year 2.
“I think we’ve added a lot of guys this year. Not everyone’s a well-known name but you a lot of traits around,” Shanahan said last week. “There’s guys who can do certain things whether it’s fast guys or quick guys, so you can attack defenses regardless of what they do.”
But contrary to what Shanahan said, the Falcons didn’t actually add “a lot of guys.” Instead, Shanahan has figured out how to better use the existing players—and for no player is that more true than running back Tevin Coleman. The second-year player has emerged as the most effective tailback-as-pass-catcher in the league so far this season, and he’s been a catalyst in Atlanta’s 4–1 start.
Shanahan has taken a 2,000-yard collegiate rusher known for his north-south running and aggressive sprinting, and put that player out in space. Coleman is catching balls out of the backfield on late-developing screens, on shallow-crossing routes with the help of a tight end clearing out space, and, as was evident last week, he's simply running past the slower linebackers matched up against him. Coleman abused Denver LBs Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis for four catches, 132 yards and a touchdown in last week’s 23–16 victory.
On three of his four receptions, Coleman motioned out of the backfield and to the line where he matched up against a linebacker. On one reception he was helped out by an Austin Hooper rub that created separation from the linebacker, and the other two times he just simply ran past his man.
“They spread us out,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said after the game. “The key problem was that they had time to get those guys down the field … for their backs to get down the field the way they did is going to take some time. You can’t ask B-Marsh [Marshall] and those guys, Todd [Davis], to hold up that long. It was a very good job on their part … [the running backs] did a hell of a job."
After a preseason of fantasy football-related questions on how they’d split carries, Coleman and starter Devonta Freeman make up what is arguably the best backfield in the NFL. Each is on pace to eclipse the 1,500 yards from scrimmage mark, something no running back duo in the league has ever done, according to ESPN. Freeman would nearly hit that mark with his rushing yards alone, while Coleman is on pace for 1,000 rushing yards and more than 500 receiving yards.
“Both are capable of taking over games and dominating,” Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said this week. “Each has shown that in different times throughout the year…
“You’re lucky to have one of those guys on your team, and we’re fortunate that we have two of them.”
Last year Coleman had two catches for 14 yards. And in his three seasons at Indiana, he caught a total of 54 balls for 383 yards. Coleman’s 313 receiving yards so far this year are tops in the league among running backs with Arizona’s David Johnson coming in a distant second with 238 yards.
Though the Falcons have been creative in how they get the ball to Coleman, no play has been more effective than using a tight end to clear out space. Atlanta avoids an illegal pick penalty because the tight end goes into his route without blocking, but he holds up the defender just long enough to let Coleman’s sub-4.4 speed take over. Through five games, the Falcons have hit Coleman on a play of that type three times for 106 yards, including 95 yards after the catch.
This week offers a new challenge for Shanahan and Coleman, though. Seattle’s Cover-3 defense has stymied pass-catching running backs for the past three games. Since Seattle’s Week 1 win over Miami, when the Seahawks were taken by surprise on two passes, Seattle’s opponents are averaging just 33 receiving yards on four catches by running backs.
The Seahawks love to pack the box with eight players when safety Kam Chancellor comes crashing down. Chancellor acts like a fourth linebacker, and Seattle would want to scheme to put him against Coleman when the running back goes out for passes.
Sunday should be the toughest test yet for Atlanta’s No. 1 offense and the league’s top receiving back. And it will again come down to how well Shanahan knows his personnel.
“These guys are good. Devonta’s really quick. Tevin just showed last week showing his versatile getting down the field catching the football,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They’ve got to be really fired up about those guys because they have a lot of stuff that they can do with them, and we can’t zero in on it because of that.”