Fans of the running game, turn your eyes to Atlanta this weekend.
Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons will feature two of the league's three leading rushers and perhaps the two hottest rushing attacks in the NFL. The Buccaneers' Doug Martin is running with the tackle-breaking abandon that made him a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012. The Falcons' Devonta Freeman is smack dab in the middle of his NFL emergence and finding the end zone seemingly every Sunday.
The last five NFL seasons have been the five most prolific passing campaigns in league history, almost in a linear progression (just swap 2013, the best ever, with 2014, the second-best). Still, every head coach says he wants to establish the run and every defensive coordinator says he wants to stop the ground game first. Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith thinks Sunday's pairing of Martin and Freeman – plus the other backs on both teams – could be a glimpse at another bit of evolution in how NFL offenses operate.
"Yes, it has become [a passing league]," said Smith. "We have more than two good running backs. Both backups are pretty good players too this week. I think you look throughout the league though, running backs are becoming more part of the offense and giving the offense a different dimension that maybe we haven't had in a while."
Projected starters for the Falcons as listed on team depth chart.
For the record, it's Freeman who ranks first in the NFL, with 621 yards. Martin is 80 behind that, with Arizona's Chris Johnson between them. Freeman also leads the league in yards from scrimmage, with 931, thanks to a little over 300 yards on 34 receptions. Martin come in at number eight because, while he is fourth on the team with 14 receptions, he has less than half of Freeman's yardage total at 129. That's partially because the Buccaneers throw a lot of their passes intended for the back at Charles Sims, who has 16 grabs for 210 yards and two touchdowns.
READ: FALCONS SCOUTING REPORT
All told, Tampa Bay running backs have combined for 1,090 yards from scrimmage and six total touchdowns, or almost exactly half of the team's total net yards (2,183) and offensive touchdowns (13). Meanwhile, Atlanta's stable of backs – which also includes Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward and Patrick DiMarco – has put up 1,254 yards and 12 touchdowns. That's about 44% of Atlanta's total offensive output (2,822) and 60% of their offensive touchdowns (20).
Freeman's emergence is clearly one of the main reasons that the Falcons have already matched their win total from last year, with his production added to the steady work of established stars like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Meanwhile, Martin's resurgence has been one of the keys to rookie quarterback Jameis Winston's rapid adjustment to the pro game.
"We talked about Julio, Roddy White, those players have been good forever," said Smith. "You know Matt Ryan. They've had that. The new dimension that they've added has been [Freeman]. It's one thing when you play a one-dimensional team you are really focusing on the pass. When it's run and pass and that's what he's brought to them. Again, along the same lines of why we are having success offensively too, we have some of the same star players in certain positions."
Overall, the Buccaneers have the NFL's fourth-best rushing attack while the Falcons rank fifth. Both teams are in the top 10 in yards per carry, around 4.4 for each. And both have been on a roll. Martin's three straight 100-yard games have helped Tampa Bay average 171 rushing yards over the last three weeks, while Atlanta's ground attack has produced 127 yards or better in five straight outings. It's pretty safe to say that both defenses will be focused on the opposing tailback from the very beginning on Sunday.
Photos of Bobby Rainey during his performance in the 2013 home victory over the Falcons.
"[Freeman] presents problems in the backfield, out of the backfield, carrying the ball, catching the ball," said Smith. "[He's] just a good football player. He runs hard. He can make you miss. He can make you miss in tight quarters, so when he gets out it's even harder. Again, he's just tough duty. A lot of the things we are saying can be said about Doug Martin. Doug's having a heck of a year, of course [Freeman] is also. Two good running backs will be on the field."
Buccaneers' defensive tackle Gerald McCoy missed last year's game in Atlanta due to a hand injury, and his presence could have helped the visitors' pass rush on what turned into a scoring landslide for the Falcons. This year, McCoy's most pressing assignment may be closing up the gaps that Freeman hopes to exploit.
"They want to run the ball for sure and have a pretty good run game," said McCoy. "Their O-line, they definitely create great seams, do a lot of really good one-on-one blocking. That's not what you really see in the league anymore is a lot of one-on-one blocking from the O-line in the run game. But they do it and they're successful with it. Freeman feeds off that.
"He's developing into a great running back. He's having a huge year, very dynamic and we have to be ready for him. He can kill you out of the backfield. He can make all the runs, any run you need. He can make all the plays. He's a huge part of the offense, so we have to be ready for him."
The Falcons and their second-ranked rush defense will certainly be geared up for the equal challenge of defending Martin, but the Buccaneer back is just as eager for the matchup. Like everyone who particularly enjoys watching a potent running game on an NFL Sunday, Martin knows the contest he'll be a part of will be a highlight of the weekend.
"It'll be a fun matchup," said Martin. "He's an explosive back. I've seen tape on him while watching other film. It'll be a cool matchup."