Steven Jackson, the Atlanta Falcons and the Benefit of Being an Afterthought

Steven Jackson should celebrate more often in Atlanta with the Falcons.

It was the perfect way to start the fourth quarter of a playoff game. On second and two, six yards out from the endzone, Roddy White hesitated at the goalline before running free infield. Matt Ryan quickly threw the ball into his chest as he turned into the endzone for a touchdown. It was just the Falcons’ second play of the quarter and there were still over 14 minutes left.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, the first three quarters of their divisional round game with the Green Bay Packers had put them in a 42-14 hole. The Falcons would be forced to endure the bitter taste that comes with a season ending prematurely for the remainder of the game.

That taste would carry over into the off-season and affect how the Falcons approached the 2011 NFL Draft. Because of their 13-3 regular season record that led to a playoff appearance, the Falcons were slated to pick 26th overall in the first round. For general manager Thomas Dimitroff, that wasn’t going to work.

Even though the Falcons had given up over 40 points in their playoff loss to the Packers, Dimitroff’s primary concern was on offense. Since drafting Matt Ryan in 2008, the Falcons had relied on Michael Turner to set the tone for their offense, while Ryan did enough for them to win games. By the time Ryan had finished his third season, he had proven himself as a worthy franchise quarterback.

Ryan finished the 2010 season with 28 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 3,700 yards and 571 pass attempts. Now that it was clear that he could carry the offense, the Falcons needed to alter the unit around him in order to get the most out of his potential.

At the time, Dimitroff believed he could do that by adding a legitimate starting receiver across from Roddy White. White and Tony Gonzalez had carried the passing attack as Ryan’s primary receivers, but there was a significant drop-off on the depth chart after that duo. Free agency came and went, giving the Falcons Ray Edwards as their sole big-name addition, meaning that Dimitroff was desperate to bring in a starting caliber receiver during the draft.

There were only two true game-changing wide receivers available in the 2010 draft, at least that was the perception at the time. By the time the Falcons were slated to pick in the first round, both were essentially guaranteed to be gone off the board. It’s possible for any prospect to fall in the draft, but Dimitroff wasn’t going to risk waiting.

Shortly after 8pm on the 28th of April that year, Dimitroff was on the phone desperately trying to trade into the top five of the draft for one of AJ Green or Julio Jones. When the Cincinnati Bengals took Green with the fourth overall pick, Dimitroff succumbed to the Cleveland Browns’ demands for the sixth overall pick.

The Falcons added Jones and begun the process of moving away from a run-oriented offense.

Jones’ addition wouldn’t be the one-step crossover from their previous philosophy to the pass offense the franchise craved, but it would prove pivotal in the long-term. Jones made an immediate impact as a rookie, before Dirk Koetter replaced Mike Mularkey during the off-season of 2012 as the team’s offensive coordinator.

Koetter and Jones’ combined impact helped push the focus of the offense onto Ryan and away from Michael Turner.

Ryan had a career-high 615 pass attempts during the 2012 regular season, while Turner went from 301 carries in 2011 to just 222 in 2012. If you exclude the 2009 season when he only played 11 games, that was the lowest number of carries Turner had with the Falcons since coming over from the San Diego Chargers in 2007.

Turner was 30 during last season. His physical tools had notably dropped off as he looked overweight and didn’t have the same explosion that had been there earlier in his career. Even when defenders were tackling him, he wasn’t handing out the punishment with his physique like he had done throughout his career. Without the tight offense around him, he was forced to concede carries to Jacquizz Rogers, a player who better fit the passing offense, even if he wasn’t an overly impressive talent.

Despite being a below average back last year, Turner still managed to finish the season with 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 3.6 career average was a reflection of his individual limitations, but his situation was enviable for any back.

Even though Koetter diversified the offense by bringing in a greater focus on the passing game, the Falcons remained committed to running the ball last season as part of their balanced attack. Having three, physical receiving options in White, Gonzalez and Jones will always push the offense to run the ball more because they can use their physicality on the edge to create different running lanes.

More important than their sheer blocking ability however, is their impact on what personnel packages the defense runs.

The New England Patriots have mastered this craft in recent years, but the Falcons did much of the same last year with Turner. By having such a strong passing attack, the Falcons were able to pick and choose when to run against eight and nine man fronts. Of Michael Turner’s 222 carries last year, 62 came against defenses with at least five defensive backs on the field.

For a bigger back who can’t run away from linebackers or defensive linemen, having more defensive backs on the field(who are most likely lining up further away from the line of scrimmage) makes running the ball much easier.

If defenses wanted to gameplan to stop Turner, they could have with ease last year. However, teams don’t prioritize Turner anymore, they set themselves up to stop the pass. Which makes sense considering the direction the Falcons have taken their offense in since selecting Ryan. When defenses looked to contain Gonzalez, Jones and White, Turner couldn’t punish them though.

His 3.6 average is terrible on it’s own, but considering the context of his situation, it’s really downright pitiful. Considering Adrian Peterson averaged 3.9 yards per attempt after contact, significantly more than Turner, and CJ Spiller averaged 3.5, just below Turner, his performances last season should have received much more criticism.

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Top 10 backs from the 2012 season ranked in terms of yards after contact per attempt. Courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Of course, Turner’s average could have been significantly hampered by his 51 attempts in the redzone, but the fact that almost one quarter of his carries came that close to the goalline showed just how little a part of the offense he was.

It surprised nobody when Turner wasn’t retained after last season. He isn’t still a free agent because of money, character or his expected role. He’s a free agent because he has run out of gas. Physically he is done and for running-backs, especially big backs, when you lose those attributes, there is no coming back.

To replace Turner, the Falcons brought in Steven Jackson from the St. Louis Rams.

Jackson is a dying breed. He is one of the few true feature backs remaining in the league. Although he is close to Turner in terms of age, just one year younger, his overall athleticism and all-around game has always been higher. Jackson signed a three-year-contract this off-season and made some noise prior to finding his new home about his role being as important as his contract.

Jackson wants to be the feature back and he still has the talent to be one for the Falcons.

Statistically, Jackson wasn’t that much better than Turner last year. He had a much better average, 4.1 yards per carry, and ran for 1,042 total yards but he had only four touchdowns. However, he had nearly half the number of redzone attempts than Turner had and played in a dramatically worse situation.

The below image isn’t a typical play from the Rams’ 2012 season, but elements of it are and it happened all too often than is acceptable.

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The yellow cross is the Rams’ right tackle, Barry Richardson, who has completely missed linebacker Justin Durant, red cross, in the hole. Richardson has no understanding of his assignment here and has run straight towards the cornerback down the field. This means that Jackson has nowhere to go as soon as he is handed the football.

Furthermore, this play began with eight defenders in the box, four defensive linemen and three linebackers. Being the biggest threat on the Rams’ offense, Jackson saw significantly more base defense personnel last year than Turner did in last snaps. Turner had 167 carries against base defense on 222 carries, whereas Jackson had 186 on over 250 carries.

That includes games against the San Francisco 49ers who played significantly more 2-4-5 for most of last season. The 49ers’ “nickel” defense isn’t like any other nickel defense. Having an extra cornerback on the field doesn’t offset the disruption of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis NaVorro Bowman and more.

Division opponents are very important to consider also. Jackson played six games a season in the NFC West, where the defenses are dramatically better suited to stopping him than those in the AFC South. Being beaten up by the Seahawks, 49ers and, to a lesser extent, the Cardinals isn’t good for any back.

Fantasy football fans should be salivating over the prospects of Jackson receiving more goalline touches and being a part of such a favorable setup in Atlanta, but most importantly, Jackson is going to potentially push the Falcons to the very top of the NFL in offensive efficiency.

Whereas Turner and Rogers had very different skill-sets, Jackson is somewhere in between in terms of style. He has infinitely more power and explosion than Turner, but he is also an excellent blocker and receiver coming out of the backfield. This will allow him to stay on the field for all three downs every week and it makes him a matchup nightmare for the defense.

No longer can teams focus on the passing game and feel comfortable that they can contain Turner. The Falcons may have lost some key pieces from their offensive line, but their replacements should be adequate while Jackson’s improvement over Turner will overshadow any negatives.

Instead of being in a similar situation to Marshawn Lynch pre-Russell-Wilson, Jackson is going to resemble Stevan Ridley this year. Ridley has benefited dramatically from the Patriots’ supporting cast around him since become the starter in Boston. He is still a very good football player, but putting Jackson in a similar scenario opens up a whole new level of matchup problems for opposing teams.

For probably the first time in his career, Jackson is the starter on a team that won’t ask him to be a leader. He will be an after-thought in opponent’s offensive meetings and face seven man fronts or lesser formations on a consistent basis. Throw in his hunger to finally make the playoffs, the energy that will come from winning and the desperation that exists for a dying breed of back who is close to the end, and Steven Jackson should expect to make a huge impact for the Atlanta Falcons this season.

Statistics in this article were courtesy of @MikeClayNFL and Pro Football Focus.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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