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Thunder and Lightning and Thunder and Lightning

In Atlanta’s backfield there are no labels. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can both do whatever their offensive coordinator wants.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Soon-to-be-MVP Matt Ryan and first-team All-Pro Julio Jones are the two superstar faces of the Atlanta offense’s incredible season, but the team’s two tailbacks are among the league’s best supporting actors. With Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta’s running backs room boasts two of the most electric rushers and pass catchers in the NFL. During the regular season, they combined for 2,482 yards and 24 touchdowns on land and through the air.

While Freeman is the nominal starter, it would be unfair to call Coleman a backup. And referring to Atlanta’s setup as “running back by committee” implies that neither player is good enough to be the heavy lifter. Instead, this group defies most traditional labels, and they’re one of the most versatile and dynamic backfield duos in NFL history.

Whether it’s running between the tackles, picking up a blitz, or taking a pass out of the backfield, both Freeman and Coleman are equally adept at doing it all. With both backs capable of playing the role of the sustaining bruiser or the fleet-footed space back in the passing game, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan rarely had to worry about tipping plays with formations or personnel.

In an era in which “11” personnel (three receivers, a tight end, and a running back) is the prevailing base offense across the league, Atlanta relied on that set less often than every other team. Instead, Shanahan preferred to go with multiple-tight-end and multiple-running-back sets. Those heavier sets allowed the Falcons to run the ball with a little more power, and it worked like a charm: Atlanta finished the year fifth in rushing yards (1,928), tied for third in touchdowns (20), and fourth in yards per carry (4.6). Freeman led the way with 1,079 yards and 11 scores, but Coleman chipped in with 520 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Falcons weren’t just running for the sake of running, though. By selling that potent ground game with both Freeman and Coleman, the Falcons were creating the opportunity for Ryan to take shots downfield in the play-action bootleg game. Forty-four percent of the Falcons’ pass plays came on two-plus-tight-end or two-plus-running-back sets, per ESPN’s Mike Clay, and as teams creep farther up into the box, it means there are fewer deep defenders. With Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel running deep, Ryan picked apart vulnerable secondaries all year.

No other team used play-action more than the Falcons (27.6 percent of their offensive snaps), and Ryan finished the year with a league-high 1,650 yards and 11.3 yards per attempt on play-action passes, connecting for nine touchdowns.

The interchangeability of Freeman and Coleman make them ideal representatives of the post-position NFL, where actual designations like running back or receiver are losing more meaning by the day. Sure, both players are dangerous runners, but they both can catch passes out of the backfield or line up on the wing. As such, Shanahan could line the offense up in a traditional three-receiver, two-running-back formation, but he’d still have five receiving options.

It puts the defense in a tough spot: To stop the run, you want more of your physical, tackling linebackers on the field, but against the pass, it’s better to have your speedy defensive backs out there. Whatever the opposing personnel prepares for, the Falcons can do the opposite, and Coleman and Freeman will take advantage. Shanahan consistently attacked these mismatches, as Freeman ended the year with 54 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns, while Coleman added 31 receptions for 421 yards and three scores.

It’s hard enough finding one running back who’s as dangerous taking a handoff as he is running a slant, and Atlanta has two of them. When Freeman and Coleman each finished the year with 30-plus receptions for 400-plus yards, in addition to 500-plus rushing yards, they joined a club occupied by just two other backfield tandems in the past 25 seasons. Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas accomplished it with the Saints in 2011, and Detroit’s Reggie Bush and Joique Bell did it in 2013.

In both of those previous cases, though, the division of labor and difference in styles were stark: For New Orleans, Sproles was the space back out of the backfield, a jittery tackle breaker in the open field, while Thomas was more of a traditional sustaining back. For the Lions, the same could be said about their Thunder (Bell) and Lightning (Bush) arrangement. For Atlanta, Freeman and Coleman are both three-down backs.

Solving Atlanta’s running back riddle now falls to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. There’s no better tactician than Belichick in the league, but he’ll have to come up with his own solutions. Looking at tape can only help so much when you’re playing an offense that no one’s been able to stop.