The Falcons are more than halfway through the regular season, and running back Steven Jackson has gained just 151 yards on 47 carries — numbers that are nowhere near Atlanta had hoped for when they signed the free agent rushed in the offseason. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — Steven Jackson was to be yet another star playmaker for the Falcons’ offense, a dynamic power back to replace plodding Michael Turner.
Instead, Jackson has been injured and unproductive, the offense is a mess and the Falcons (2-7) are in danger of sliding from first to worst in the NFC.
Clearly the offense’s overall struggles or the ineffective running game can’t be blamed solely on Jackson. But the reality is Jackson has had minimal impact for the Falcons after he was their prized offseason free-agent signing on offense.
“Running the ball is a group effort; it is not one individual and it is not one unit,” Jackson said. “But over the years I’ve taken pride in being consistent. So regardless of why things have not worked out, first thing is first, (and) I refuse as a leader to point the finger at someone else before I point it at myself.”
It seems long ago now, but Jackson made a promising debut for the Falcons in Week 1 at New Orleans. During his 50-yard run in that game Jackson flashed the combination of power and speed that’s helped make him the leading rusher among active players.
But Jackson suffered a hamstring injury on the first drive of the second game and sat out the next four. His return to the lineup hasn’t revived the running game, which hasn’t produced a gain of 20 yards or more since Jackson’s 50-yard burst.
“I am still very much durable, and I am healthy,” Jackson said. “I’ve said it time and time again: No one is 100 percent on that field on Sunday. At that point where I am at with my health now, that is no excuse. So I’ve got to continue to chip away and do the things I’ve done in the past and that’s lead by example … and put everything on the line and see how it shakes out.”
The Falcons rank next-to-last in the NFL in yards per rush, the same place they finished in 2012. The difference is that for most of last season and at times early this season, the Falcons masked their inefficient rushing game with effective screen passes and an explosive passing game.
It’s become more difficult for the Falcons to get by without running effectively. Poor blocking, injuries to wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and quarterback Matt Ryan’s meandering accuracy are all factors.
“It would help us out to run the ball, but running the ball itself doesn’t solve your problems,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “You’ve got to run the ball successfully, and you’ve got to move the (first-down) chains, get to third-and-manageable and convert.”
After most of the Falcons’ poor rushing games this season, coach Mike Smith said it’s difficult to evaluate Jackson and the other backs because they didn’t have a chance. The offensive line has struggled blocking inside and on the edge at the point of attack and also with sealing the back side of plays.
But Jackson also hasn’t been as effective making his own yards as in the past.
Jackson has gained 151 yards on 47 carries, and according to Pro Football Focus, 84 of those yards came after contact (YAC) for 1.8 YAC yards per attempt. His YAC per rush ranks tied for 45th among running backs with at least 40 attempts this season.
In the five previous seasons in which Pro Football Focus tracked statistics, Jackson gained at least 2.6 yards YAC per attempt, with a high of 3.0 in 2008. Those figures typically placed him in the top 10 of the NFL’s running backs in yards gained after contact.
The difference this season could be that Jackson is fending off more defenders in the backfield because of the porous blocking.
“When coming downhill, I think I am still able to break tackles,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s lack of production this season comes with the caveat of small sample size, and Koetter said that’s an important point.
“Steven Jackson is a workhorse running back, and we haven’t been able to work him,” Koetter said. “I think Steven is one of those guys that gets better the more he touches it. We are not running it successfully enough to get him enough carries.”