Projected starters for the Falcons as listed on team depth chart.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome in Week Eight, it marked the first time that Jameis Winston and Devonta Freeman had competed against each other since they helped lead Florida State to a BCS Championship in 2013. Winston, the Buccaneers' rookie quarterback, heaped praise upon his former Seminole teammate, the Falcons' second-year running back, prior to the game.
"He's just an all-around back," said Winston. "You don't have to take him out at all. He can spread out, you can throw him a pass. He can run routes like a receiver, he has great hands. He can run downhill, he can stretch field, run outside – he can do everything that you want a typical back to do and he's hard-noised. He's smart. He can pass protect. He can do anything you ask him to do and that's why I believe we had a very successful team at Florida State. We had guys like that that are willing to do anything."
While that's a thorough scouting report, it's that last trait that Winston clearly appreciates the most in Freeman, and the feeling is mutual.
"One of my main memories of him [is] how competitive he was," said Freeman of Winston, as the two prepare to share the field again in a rematch in Tampa on Sunday. "He's a guy [who has] that killer mentality, like, 'I won't stop, I won't stop, I won't stop; I want to win, I want to be great.' I truly believe that he's the type of guy who is not in it for nothing but the love of the game. The memories I have with him are just how hard he competed and grinded."
READ: FALCONS SCOUTING REPORT
Freeman has broken through as a star in his sophomore campaign and he had the NFL rushing lead during the season's first half before missing most of the last two games with a concussion. He is still first in the NFC and second in the NFL in touchdowns, with 11, and he has been cleared to return to action against the Buccaneers. Even before his emergence as the Falcons' lead back, however, his coaches and teammates loved Freeman's attitude and work ethic. Not surprisingly, he sees his return not as a chance to add to his stats but to get back to the grind.
"I'm excited to be back out there and just go out there and work hard," he said. "I think I'm a real competitive person – I just like the grind, I just like to prove to my teammates and my coaches how much I love the game of football and how much I enjoy the grind."
It's clear that Freeman values that never-say-die trait not only in himself but in his competitors. Buccaneers rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander turned in an incredible performance in the Week Eight game in the Georgia Dome, combining an interception with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high 11 tackles. What Freeman remembers most from Alexander's efforts, however, was his competitiveness.
"I like that guy," said Freeman. "He's a competitor first, he's a dog. When I played against him, after the game I was like, 'Man, that guy, he was on me.' I think he's a real competitive person. He's just got that mentality, that dog mentality, that 'I will not lose.' I don't know him personally, but I can just tell when a guy's got that dog in him, and him and [Lavonte David], I respect those guys so much."
Photos of Jameis Winston's 245 yards, 1 TD performance against the Colts on November 29th.
Both teams are going to need that sort of competitive spirit from their young stars down the stretch. The Falcons bring a 6-5 record and a one-game lead over the Buccaneers into Sunday's game, but both teams are on the edge of the NFC playoff race with little margin for error over the next five weeks. The Falcons' situation is more tenuous then seemed likely after their 5-0 start, but they've dropped five of their last six and now are on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with Seattle for the second tiebreaker spot.
"It's been frustrating, of course," said Freeman. "Nobody signs up to lose. We're just being real positive about it. We can't dwell on the past. All we can do is get better, see how we can grow, see how we can fix our mistakes. I don't think anything super, super bad happened that needed to be changed [as far as] any changes in the offense or defense, we just have to go out there and compete and play harder and finish four quarters."
The winner of Sunday's game will still be right in the thick of the playoff race, but the loser will be facing a very steep uphill climb. Neither team is shying away from that fact. Freeman, in fact, thinks it will bring out the best in his team's competitive nature.
"It's a big deal," he said. "It's almost like win or go home right now. You know you have to put it all on the line. They are going to come in and play us physical, hard. We're going down there to play them – we're coming in with the same mentality. But I think it's going to determine our season. Every game is going to come down to it, so we just have to continue to do what we do and get better."