FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons rushing game, which has been nonexistent lately, could receive a boost from the return of running back Steven Jackson.
Jackson, who suffered a hamstring injury on Sept. 15, is set to return to practice today, Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
After a limited workout, the Falcons will have to move full speed to get Jackson ready for Sunday’s game at Arizona. The team has struggled with the ground game with Jackson out of the lineup. Most recently, they rushed 18 times for just 18 yards against Tampa Bay last Sunday.
“Obviously, we have to do better running the football,” Smith said.
Jackson was injured against his former team, the St. Louis Rams, when rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree tackled him while he was making his way into the end zone on an 8-yard pass play.
This marks the third straight season that Jackson, who turned 30 in July, has suffered an early-season soft tissue injury.
Last season in Game 2, he suffered a groin injury against Washington. In the 2011 season-opener against Philadelphia, he pulled a quadriceps muscle after running 47 yards for a touchdown.
However, he sat out just one game the past two years. He has missed four as a Falcon.
Jackson had no yards on three carries against the Rams. In the season opener against New Orleans, he had 11 carries for 77 yards, including a 50-yard romp.
The Falcons have tried to replace Jackson with reserve running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling with mixed results. Things got off to a good start against Miami with Rodgers and Snelling powering the Falcons to a season-high 146 yards on 30 carries.
But they have been unable to sustain that output. The Falcons were held to 58 yard rushing against New England and 64 against the New York Jets.
Jackson could boost a running game that is averaging 68.3 yards per game and is ranked 30th in the league of 32 teams.
“That’s something we’ve got to fix,” Rodgers said. “The running game was not effective this week. As a group, running backs got to run harder and everyone’s got to be on the same page, blocking the right man, us as running backs getting downhill.”
The Falcons say they will be careful not to rush Jackson. Smith said he expects to give Jackson some limited action this week and see how he handles that before increasing his work load.
“This is all based on what the doctor will say in terms of how much he will participate in practice as we go through the week,” Smith said. “When we left out of here on Friday, everything was very good in terms of his testing and the opportunity to return to play.”
Jackson was signed last offseason to replace Michael Turner, who was released in January. Despite dropping a potential game-winning touchdown pass, he had a strong showing in the opener against the Saints and was off to a good start against the Rams.
The Falcons originally thought Jackson might miss just two to three weeks with what was first called a hip injury. But Sunday’s game against the Bucs was the fifth week (counting the bye week) he’s has been out.
Jackson wrote in his personal blog that he didn’t want to return until he was “100 percent healthy.”
Getting Jackson back could be needed good news for the Falcons, who’ve been hit hard with injuries this season.
In addition to Jackson, wide receiver Roddy White (hamstring/ankle), left tackle Sam Baker (left knee) and reserve tight end Chase Coffman (knee) were all held out of the offense in the Tampa Bay game.
Smith said that all those injured players were set to go through testing by the training staff on Monday and were scheduled to see the team doctor, who could approve or disapprove their return to practice.
“I’m not going to talk about where Roddy is,” Smith said. “We’re all progressing well. We’ll have to see where these guys are on Wednesday. We’re encouraged with the way that our guys have worked to get back out on the field.”
Despite his injuries the past two years, Jackson was able to continue his string of 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He has 10,135 career rushing yards and has posted eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
The Cardinals, Sunday’s opponent, have the NFL’s seventh best rushing defense, giving up 97 yards per game.