2013 Key Player: Steven Jackson
Yesterday, I discussed the type of role running back Steven Jackson could have with the Falcons. Jackson hopes to show the world that he still has something left in the tank and will help add physicality to the Falcons ground attack that was lacking a year ago. The more the Falcons get from Jackson, the better served they will be in 2013.
I compared Jackson potentially in 2013 to running back Corey Dillon and what he provided the New England Patriots in 2004. Dillon looked washed up in Cincinnati, as years of playing on a bad team took their toll in 2003. He lost his starting job to Rudi Johnson that year and finished the season with 541 rushing yards on 138 carries (3.9 avg) and 2 touchdowns, all career lows. Dillon had a reputation then as being a malcontent, openly pouting over the Bengals losing ways for years. But he had a resurgence with the Patriots, rushing for 1,635 yards on 345 carries (4.7 avg) and 12 touchdowns, all of which represented career highs. And helped lead the Patriots to what currently is their last Super Bowl win in that year. The Patriots went from one of the weaker rushing attacks a year prior under Antowain Smith, who previously had been their workhorse in two previous championships, to one of the top rushing units in the league in 2004.
Jackson hopes to do the same in Atlanta. The major difference between Jackson and Dillon is the perception about their character. Dillon was seen as a risky gamble by Bill Belichick bringing in a player that had been labeled as a bad guy. There is no such risk with Jackson, who is considered one of the higher character players in the NFL. Jackson had moments of immaturity early in his career, but has since developed into the type of player that owners and coaches don’t mind fronting their franchise, as he did for years on bad St. Louis Rams teams in the post-Kurt Warner/Marshall Faulk Era. Jackson comes from a Rams team that has eight consecutive seasons where they missed the playoffs. The only time Jackson has smelled the postseason was his rookie season when he was a reserve behind Faulk. That gives Jackson great motivation here in Atlanta as he likely gets his first opportunity to showcase that he can add value to a winning team, not just be the lone bright spot on a bad one.
Similarly to the 2003 Patriots, the 2012 Falcons were one of the league’s worst rushing teams. That year, the Patriots ranked 27th in the league in rushing offense and 30th in average yards per carry. The 2012 Falcons were similarly bad in those categories, respectively ranking 29th in both last year. Dillon helped improve the Patriots to 7th and 18th in those respective categories in 2004, and the Falcons hope to get sparked by Jackson for similar improvement. The Falcons had to rely almost solely on their passing attack last year to effectively move the ball, rushing the ball on only 37% of their offensive plays, the seventh lowest percentage in the league. None of the teams that finished lower than the Falcons had winning records. In fact, the Falcons were only one of three teams (the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts being the others) that were below the league average of having 42.3% of their total offensive plays being runs and finish with a winning record. It goes back to the old adage of “throw to score, run to win.”
The Falcons didn’t need to run the ball late in games when they held leads largely due to the prolific nature of their passing attack. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez all played at elite levels in 2012 for much if not all of the year. When you have your four best players all playing the best they’ve played in four or more years, the need for balance isn’t necessary. But despite the likelihood that all four continue to play well in 2013, the Falcons probably can’t realistically expect a repeat of that performance.
That’s where Jackson and the ground game should come in handy to try and pick up any lost slack. In an ideal world, the Falcons will be able to generate earlier leads in games, and then use Jackson late as a hammer to finish off their opponents with his physical, hard-nosed rushing style. Last year, in the second halves of games, the Falcons ran the ball on 38.8% of their offensive plays, a percentage good enough only to rank them 23rd in the league. The next lowest playoff team were the Indianapolis Colts at 42.7% and 18th ranked.
Jackson’s ability to contribute both as a pass protector and pass catcher will also make him valuable when building those early leads. The Falcons aren’t going to suddenly not be a pass-first team, but if there can be a couple of games throughout the year here and there where the Falcons can feed Jackson and get good production, it will greatly help. Michael Turner had only 2 100-yard games last year. He’s had 8 in the past two seasons, but in 5 of those games he had at least one carry for 40 or more yards, making up the bulk of his production. The Falcons would like to see a handful of games where Jackson reaches the century mark, particularly games where Jackson’s can rush the ball 20 or more times, indicating that the Falcons were able to effectively control the line of scrimmage and play with a lead.
Unlike Turner, Jackson will be a key component of the Falcons no-huddle attack as recent reports indicate he’s doing everything he possibly can to get up to speed and get on the same page with Matt Ryan. That ability will give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter greater flexibility with his play-calling, as opposing defenses won’t be able to key on the running back to tip the play. Last year, on nearly half of Turner’s reps (48.3% according to Pro Football Focus), he was handed the ball. While Jacquizz Rodgers had three-quarters (74.5%) of his snaps come on passing plays. Seeing Rodgers in the backfield, opposing teams knew it was a pass play. And even if they guessed wrong, the Falcons rushing attack was unable to make them pay. Seeing Turner, teams knew to key on the run, and considering Turner was mediocre at best as a pass catcher it made linebackers’ jobs easier because they never had to worry too much about accounting for him there. That shouldn’t be the case any longer now that Jackson is in the lineup.
That likely will lead to a decreased role for Rodgers, who often spelled Turner in those passing situations last year. Last year, Turner received about 58% of their team’s carries, a drop from his 2011 total around 66%. Jackson should see a workload comparable to the former. And if the Falcons can effectively increase the number of times they can run the ball this year that should result in a heavy workload for Jackson. A fair estimation should be somewhere between 275 and 325 carries for Jackson in 2013 assuming the Falcons as a team can run the ball 425-500 times overall. They had 378 total carries in 2012. And the Falcons are optimistic that Jackson will be able to average more than 4 yards per attempt, something no rusher on the team was able to accomplish a year ago. That should mean at a minimum, Jackson should be able to eclipse 1100 yards, about the combined total of Turner and Rodgers last year. His upper benchmark could be somewhere over 1300 to 1400 yards if he proves to be really effective. The closer Jackson can get to that upper total, the better the Falcons will be.
While that won’t be on par with the individual production that Dillon had in 2004, it still will represent a success for the Falcons. Jackson won’t be the focus of defensive gameplans this year, but he needs to find ways to make teams pay for not paying enough attention to him. As mentioned in his scouting report, Jackson won’t be a guy that is going to generate very many long runs. But he can be the type of player that can make a defense expend just as much energy trying to take him down on a 6-yard gain as he could on a 60-yard one due to his powerful running style.
One of the things that led to Turner’s initial success in Atlanta was his ability to generate yards after contact. Turner could run through the first surge of tacklers, then use his speed to generate long runs, earning his nickname the “Burner.” Jackson won’t quite do that, but he can use his power to wear down opponents, and keep the Falcons offense on schedule without having to rely on Matt Ryan’s arm. That should allow the Falcons offense to morph into a more explosive one than they were in 2012. The Falcons ranked 29th in the league last year in terms of generating 20+ yard pass plays per pass attempt. A large part of that was due to the fact that the running game was so ineffective, and the Falcons had to trade explosiveness for efficiency in their passing attack to make up for it. With a more effective running game, the Falcons can take advantage of their ability to strike down the field. That should open up greater opportunities for Julio Jones and Roddy White in particular on the outside, rather than constantly being asked to move the chains. That might result in lower catch numbers for either player in 2013, but more of those catches could be big plays down the field. And if the Falcons can strike fear into opponents’ hearts with their vertical potential, that will only make them harder to defend.
Jackson’s hard-running should also benefit the Falcons in short-yardage, where the plodding style of Turner was ineffective. Jackson hits the hole quicker and should be better served getting that initial surge, which was lacking in Atlanta. That obviously means that the Falcons overall offense will be more efficient and able to continue drives, particularly late in games.
The questions surrounding Jackson are whether his age is going to catch up to him. There’s no doubt that age has slowed Jackson down in recent years. He doesn’t run with quite the same burst that he once did. But he still runs fairly well for a player that will be turning 30 just before training camp opens. At some point the wheels are going to fall off Jackson, much as they did with Turner. But unlike Turner, Jackson is in excellent shape, which should give him greater longevity and give him better odds of succeeding than your typical 30-year old running back.
As mentioned earlier, the Falcons don’t have a large window for winning the Super Bowl. And it’s no secret that the Falcons brought in Jackson to help give them that boost over the hump to try and win that Lombardi sooner rather than later. They really are just hoping that Jackson has one or two more good years left in the tank. If he does, he could be a key reason why the Falcons are able to take the next step up in 2013.