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Thursday July 18th, 2019 3:46AM

Falcons' Freeman expected to return after missing 3 games

By The Associated Press
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FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons expect to have running back Devonta Freeman return for Sunday's game at the Pittsburgh Steelers after missing three games with a sore right knee.

Coach Dan Quinn said Freeman, the team's leading rusher each of the last three years, would have full clearance "without any setbacks."

There was no report of a setback, but Freeman was listed as limited on the team's practice report, just as he was late last week.

Freeman was upbeat before the practice.

"I feel really good," Freeman said. "Coming back and doing something I really love to do is always a good time. I'm just excited to be back."

Freeman said he's confident he is "comfortable enough to be back out there."

"I feel explosive and ready to run," he said.

Atlanta's defense, meanwhile, has lost a fourth starter for at least one week. Quinn confirmed defensive tackle Grady Jarrett will be held out with an ankle sprain and knee injury he suffered late in last week's 37-36 loss to Cincinnati .

Quinn said Jack Crawford will start for Jarrett. Terrell McClain and rookie Deadrin Senat will have bigger roles.

Defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who was signed on Tuesday after being cut by Jacksonville on Sept. 11, said he is "studying like crazy" to be ready for a backup role.

"I plan to play, and they plan to play me," Bennett said.

The Falcons' defense already has lost starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen to season-ending injuries and linebacker Deion Jones for at least eight weeks. Offensive guard Andy Levitre also is on IR.

The Falcons (1-3) have lost two straight games, so the return of Freeman was embraced as rare positive news.

"Free is chomping at the bit to get back and get going," Quinn said, adding he hopes a full week of practice will enable Freeman to "feel like he can explode and do the things that he does in both the run game and pass game.

"Man, we're pumped to have him back out there."

This is the second straight season Freeman has missed time with injuries. He missed two games in 2017 with a concussion, his second of the year, and was slowed by a right knee injury late in the season.

After running for more than 1,000 yards in 2015 and 2016, Freeman finished with 865 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, along with 36 receptions, last season.

Tevin Coleman and rookie Ito Smith combined to run for 86 yards against the Bengals. Quinn was not satisfied with the production of the ground game.

"We definitely left some things out there in the run game, we felt, this past week," Quinn said. "We challenged the offense. We think there's a spot we can go to and we can be significantly better and the run game is one of those spots."

Atlanta running game also sputtered in a 43-37 overtime loss to New Orleans on Sept. 23. Coleman averaged only 2.2 yards per carry while being held to 33 yards.

Freeman wouldn't say he alone could jumpstart the running game.

"I'm just coming in to do my part," he said. "I just think we need to win. It's not about individual stats or any of that."

NOTES: WR Julio Jones (hand, ankle), CB Justin Bethal (knee) and Jarrett were held out. Other players listed as limited: DE Vic Beasley Jr. (ankle), Coleman (shin), WR Mohamed Sanu (hip), DE Derrick Shelby (groin) and LB Foye Oluokun (ankle). Jones has missed practices each of the last two weeks before being removed from the injury report before games.

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