It’s time to look at the Falcons signature offensive free agent addition in running back Steven Jackson.
In fact, one could argue the Falcons made a mistake by not trading for Jackson at the trade deadline last fall, as the boost he could have potentially provided down the stretch could have meant the difference between the Falcons losing in the NFC Championship Game and going to the Super Bowl. The Falcons appear to believe that acquiring Jackson later is better than never. But let’s first look at Jackson’s skillset before talking about what exactly he could bring to the table in 2013. Once again, the grading system is based on a ten-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.
Speed (5.0) – Jackson possesses good burst and hits the hole quickly. He however lacks the long speed to be particularly dangerous on the second level. He’s never been a back known for his ability to break long runs having 31 runs of 20 or more yards in his 9-year career. In comparison to Michael Turner, who had 45 in his 5 years in Atlanta and 29 between 2008-10. Jackson’s running style is more suited to being a volume back that can consistently get gains of 3-7 yards per run and wear down opponents over time.
Power (8.0) – Jackson runs with great authority, toughness, and physicality. He’s not afraid of contact and will consistently crave it. He consistently keeps his feet churning after initial contact and in traffic, allowing him to consistently add yards here and there. While not a player that is going to run over every defender, he does make it so that he’s not easy to bring down which can help wear down defenses. As a volume runner that can make him most effective in the fourth quarter.
Agility (6.0) – Jackson possesses good lateral agility and quickness, able to side-step defenders in the hole. He shows good burst out of his cuts, as he’s comfortable working inside and on the edge. His agility makes him an effective one-cut runner when working on stretch plays and other zone blocking runs. He is able to make a defender miss on the second level and bounce plays to the edge, although again his lack of ideal speed limits his ability to generate big plays in those instances.
Vision (7.0) – Jackson has good vision to the hole, able to run to daylight and due to his power, burst, and lateral quickness, he can exploit it. But his declining skill in those areas doesn’t allow him to always do so to the level he once did in the past. There will be many runs where he’ll run into traffic and use his size and power to make a hole where there is none.
Hands (7.0) – He possesses good hands and is comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield. He’ll drop some passes on occasion, but considering his relatively high volume of targets and opportunities, it’s a fairly low percentage. He is able to secure the ball and then square his shoulders to get downfield to run hard after the catch.
Blocking (7.0) – He is an experienced pass protector having served in that role for the Rams for a number of years. His reps were cut down last year in part due to the presence of Daryl Richardson, and also do to the Rams new offense preferring to spread the field and limiting how much backs were asked to block. His size and physicality makes him more than capable of squaring up a defensive linemen coming off the edge or up the middle.
Jackson isn’t the player he once was. Five years ago, he was in the mix for being one of the top backs in the league a notch below players like Adrian Peterson. Similarly, Jackson possesses all the tools you look for in a top back, size, speed, power, pass catching ability, quickness, and agility. And despite languishing on bad Rams teams for years, he was be able to showcase these skills. So even while his production never matched that of a player like Michael Turner in his heyday in Atlanta, I always considered Jackson to be the superior back.
Jackson still possesses many of the skills he once did, but not to the same level. He’s still very powerful, possessing excellent strength and using that to his advantage with how hard he runs. He does not quit on plays and unlike other backs it rarely leads to issues of ball security, because Jackson consistently tucks the ball away with both hands. That is something he’s improved at over the course of his career. Over the past four seasons, he’s fumbled a total of 5 times despite having 1,348 touches (1 fumble every 270 touches).
Jackson is a clear upgrade over Turner. As time wore on for the former Falcon running back, his power became less because he became more plodding in the hole, stopping his feet to try and change direction and avoid contact. Turner, even in his prime, lacked lateral agility and quickness, relying solely on being a straight-ahead downhill runner that due to his compact, powerful build could run through tackles and defenders. With less burst and not running as hard in the hole, that power dissipated. That is not the case with Jackson. Also, Jackson also possesses the lateral agility and quickness to change direction in the hole, which means he is better equipped to add yards even when plays are poorly blocked. That lack of agility and quickness also made Turner fairly ineffective running on zone plays, something that won’t be an issue with Jackson. The Falcons could be more effective implementing more zone runs in their offense, something Dirk Koetter used to great affect with Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and also should benefit a player like Jacquizz Rodgers, who’s playing style is more geared to that style of offense. However, most of the Falcons offensive linemen still are better suited to being man blockers. But Jackson should also fit well in that style.
Jackson also adds value on passing downs, something that Turner did not. While Turner was a very effective pass protector, his inconsistent and unreliable hands limited his value. Also, Turner’s plodding running style made him less than ideal on screens and pass patterns, because he needed space to build up the momentum and speed as a runner. Jackson won’t really have that issue. While his burst is not to the same level as Rodgers, he should be more effective on screens and be a capable option on passing downs. So that he will likely get the majority of reps in those situations.
Another key aspect for Jackson is his leadership. He ostensibly brings many of the same high character, toughness, and work ethic traits that Tony Gonzalez brought to the team. Jackson also is a more vocal leader than Gonzalez, something he had to be as the only signature player in St. Louis for many years. Falcons teammates will enjoy playing with him, and the hope will be that his physical nature will have an infectious impact on the blockers being paid to clear lanes for him. The Falcons front really struggled to create any push last year, and while the changes to the starting lineup should help them this year, it’s not as if they will magically transform overnight into one of the most physical, road-grading units. Jackson is a player that can accentuate his blocking by being more consistent than Turner and the other Falcons runners at getting yards after contact and adding a yard or two here and there even when his line doesn’t create lanes and space for him.
The Falcons will intend to use Jackson as a hammer to complement their efficient passing attack. In an ideal world, the brunt of his work will come in the second halves and fourth quarters of games where the Falcons have built a lead and need to milk clock to get the victory. He should also be more effective helping the offense stay on schedule on early run downs, helping to set up more favorable third down situations. Falcons rushers were successful on 38.1% of first down attempts last year, with Turner’s success rate being 40.6%. Turner was stuffed for no gain or a loss on 22.6% of his first down carries last year and the team was stuffed on 21.8% of those plays. Jackson on the other hand in St. Louis was successful on 47.4% of his runs, as the team was successful on 47.7% of their first down runs. Jackson also was stuffed on only 15.6% of his first down carries. If Jackson can repeat that production here in Atlanta, it will provide a significant boost to the effectiveness and consistency of the offense.
Essentially the Falcons are sort of hoping that Jackson functions much in the same way that Corey Dillon did for the Patriots back in 2004. In 2003, the Patriots running game looked diminished under Antowain Smith, as he led them in rushing with 642 yards after sharing the load with Kevin Faulk. Dillon also looked fairly washed up in Cincinnati, rushing for only 541 yards and a pair of touchdowns and losing snaps to an emerging Rudi Johnson. But Dillon had renewed vigor at age 29 in his first season in New England, exploding for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns, with his yards per carry jumping from 3.9 to 4.7. But he helped propel a Patriots rushing offense that ranked 27th in 2003, jump to 8th in 2004. That year, Dillon’s 87 carries and 374 rushing yards in the fourth quarter ranked him 3rd and 4th, respectively, in the league among backs.
After 2004, Dillon wasn’t quite as effective as injuries began to take their toll and he seemingly put the last of what he had into that ’04 season where he helped the Patriots earn what would prove to be their final Super Bowl win for the next 8 seasons and counting. The Falcons probably would make a similar trade-off if Jackson can provide a spark to the ground game that can add more balance to their attack and help them earn their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.