Back in the mid-2000s, while Devonta Freeman played youth football in Miami, Fla., LaDainian Tomlinson was in the prime of his Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Freeman looked up to the superstar from Texas and paid attention every time No. 21 came on TV. He loved that powerful running style, which made so many defenders miss. He appreciated LT's ability to limit turnovers. And he admired Tomlinson's pass-catching, a skill he's honed in recent years.
Fast forward a decade, and Freeman's beginning to play like the guy he's tried to emulate for so long. Atlanta's convincing win against Houston is a perfect example.
The Falcons running back made a lot of Texans miss on Sunday. He secured the ball well despite a slew of big hits. He proved to be a valuable receiver, too, thanks to a handful of catches from a variety of alignments. And by scoring three times, he joined one of his heroes in an elite statistical category.
Freeman's third touchdown against Houston—an easy six-yard scamper—gave him seven rushing TDs in his first four games of 2015, making him one of only five players since 1960 to accomplish this feat.
The last to do so: Tomlinson, in 2005.
"I don't really pay attention to stats right now, but it feels good to just score and be able to get a win," said Freeman, who also became the first player since the NFL/AFL merger to rush for three touchdowns in each of his first two starts. "Getting this team victory is the most important thing. Individually, I want to be the best player and all, but we want to go to the Super Bowl."
The Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans are both coming off of Week 3 wins as they face off in the Georgia Dome. Take a look at these pictures of the game.
One can argue Freeman's production is more impressive than Tomlinson's historic tear. Freeman missed all of preseason with a hamstring injury, for one, and he didn't get a heavy workload until Tevin Coleman got hurt in Week 2. Not to mention the fact that he and a recently-assembled group of linemen are still learning a new, somewhat complex blocking scheme.
Nevertheless, Freeman's evolution has allowed the Falcons to establish an unpredictable offense. With JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Vince Wilfork on the other side of the ball, being able to take pressure off Matt Ryan and limit the pass-rush opportunities made an enormous difference on Sunday, especially in the first half.
"For us, the run game has been awesome these first four weeks of the season, and I think we're getting better week to week, which is encouraging to see," Ryan said. "As a quarterback, there's nothing better than to be able to hand that ball off on first and second down and be able to get into third-and-two, third-and-three or get first downs on first and second down running the football. It makes it easier because you end up seeing a lot more advantageous looks to throw the football."
Atlanta's revamped line paved the way for Freeman. The outside zone scheme Kyle Shanahan brought to town has been the catalyst for the Falcons' dangerous ground attack; even a defense as talented as Houston's, which gave up only 235 combined rushing yards in its first three games, couldn't slow it down.
And though outside rushes are a huge part of Shanahan's blueprint, some of Freeman's biggest plays versus the Texans came on inside calls—including his second TD of the afternoon, a 23-yard sprint up the gut. That success was made possible by Freeman's aggressive running style as well as Andy Levitre, Mike Person and Chris Chester, who were collectively excellent.
"Our offensive linemen does a great job creating lanes for us to run in," Freeman said. "They have just been grinding hard. People can say what they want to say all the time, but as long as we believe in each other, that is all it takes."
What's made Freeman truly dynamic is the way he's executed in passing situations. From the beginning of training camp, Dan Quinn has emphasized how valuable the 5-foot-8 athlete can be as a receiver, and the Falcons are wisely getting him involved through the air.
In the last two weeks Freeman's tallied 133 receiving yards, more than every other NFL halfback in that time frame.
"Not only is he a good catcher, he can line up outside at receiver and run good routes, so he's a really complete back in that way," Quinn said of Freeman. "It's a real weapon for us. Knowing we can have a chance to match him up on linebackers, and it's something that we're going to continue to do for sure. He's just got this relentless ability to keep competing. It's one of the things that I really most respect about him and his game."
Now, young football players around the country are marvelling at Atlanta's second-year RB. How could they not? While the season is young, Freeman's currently one of the sport's best and most electric forces. The box score, the tape, the positional rankings—every legitimate resource backs up this notion.
Maybe in a decade, a young running back will reflect on a strong performance and say he grew up watching No. 24 on TV. The way things are going, that doesn't seem far-fetched.