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.