Falcons running back Steven Jackson didn’t participate in the team’s first preseason game and had to watch as Atlanta’s three other rushers had solid performances. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — With veteran running back Steven Jackson out nursing a left hamstring injury, all three of the Atlanta Falcons running backs behind him on the depth chart had strong efforts in the exhibition opener.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman all made dazzling plays in Friday night’s 16-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins and showed signs that they could be a strong running back committee.
But were they strong enough to the Falcons to consider moving on from Jackson, a 31 year old who has been injury plagued since coming to the Falcons from St. Louis in 2013?
Falcons coach Mike Smith said that Smith’s role in the offense has to expand after caught a check-down pass and busted loose for 34 yards. Later, he ran for a 76-yard touchdown. Both explosive plays were nullified by penalty.
In spot duty last season, Smith averaged 29 yards per carry. He never did earn regular playing time even though the Falcons were sliding to a 4-12 finish.
On Smith’s 34-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter, Falcons veteran wide receiver Harry Douglas was lined up illegally. A holding penalty on right tackle Jake Matthews canceled out Smith’s 76-yard run in the second quarter.
“I mean, it is frustrating, but we know it is the first preseason game for a lot of people out there, so a lot of stuff is changing, so we expect a lot of penalties,” Antone Smith said.
But those plays still created a buzz.
“Both of those plays got called back but he showed the explosiveness that he has and the speed,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “He can change a game on any given play. That was fun to watch.”
The Falcons signed Smith as a free agent in 2009 and he has found his niche as a special teams ace. Before last season Smith had just one carry in his previous three seasons with the Falcons.
“Antone had some very explosive plays,” Mike Smith said. “Antone’s a guy that can do some things when we get the ball in his hands. I would imagine we would want to make sure to help him get some touches, put him in an advantageous situation, but I was very impressed with him.”
Rodgers, who started for Jackson, had a 2-yard touchdown run on the Falcons’ first offensive possession, capping a 15-play, 77-yard drive.
Last season, the Falcons ranked tied for fifth with 38 first possession points and they have ranked in the top seven in terms of first possession scoring in each season since coach Mike Smith took over in 2008.
Freeman also got in on the act. He accounted for 107 total yards on 11 touches.
Freeman carried the ball 10 times for 50 yards, including a long gain of 14 yards while posting a game-high 5.0 yards per carry. He also added one reception for 57 yards.
“I was impressed with Devonta Freeman, in terms of how he ran the ball for the most part,” Mike Smith said. “We did some positive things. They’ll be some plays that we’ll be talking about, but first and foremost it’s really always about your first impression.”
Freeman was pleased with his night.
“I felt like I did an OK job,” Freeman said. “But I have a lot of work to do with everything and every phase, pass block and runs. Overall, I just have a lot of work to do.”