The last time Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson was on the field, he was crossing the goal line on an eight-yard reception against his former team, the St. Louis Rams, in a Week 2 game in the Georgia Dome. The touchdown came with 8:42 on the clock in the first quarter, so Jackson hasn’t played in about 19.5 quarters.
The Falcons are 1-3 over that span, and the running game has suffered. Atlanta mustered just 36 yards on the ground in that Week 2 game against the Rams, exploded for 146 on the ground the next week, and then over the next three games combined gained just 140 yards.
|Atlanta Falcons 2013 Rushing Yards|
|at New Orleans||14||88||6.29|
|vs. St. Louis||16||36||2.25|
|vs. New England||15||58||3.87|
|vs. New York Jets||22||64||2.91|
|vs. Tampa Bay||18||18||1.00|
|Pro Football Reference|
Last Sunday’s rushing output against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the worst in recent history. The Falcons gained 18 yards on 18 carries for a pedestrian one yard per carry. The last time the Falcons had an average that low was Week 6 of the 2000 season when the team gained 13 yards on 14 carries.
On a bright note, days as dismal as that don’t come along very often. On an even brighter note, the cavalry might be coming in the form of Jackson.
Jackson returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. According to Jay Adams of the Atlanta Falcons' official website, Jackson used Wednesday’s session to test the waters, so to speak:
Jackson also re-iterated that he won’t be pushing himself all that hard Wednesday, but will get a chance to test some things out to start the week of preparation.
Thursday was a much different practice session for Jackson, according to Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com. Speaking with head coach Mike Smith, McClure learned that Jackson was way more involved Thursday and almost was a full participant:
In terms of limited, they actually had more snaps than they had yesterday, and that was the plan -- to try and ramp them up, Smith said, referring to both Jackson and tight end Chase Coffman, who is coming off a knee injury. Give them their first day very limited ... I'd say it was almost a full load for the guys today.
Jackson hasn’t declared himself ready to play on Sunday when the team travels to face the Arizona Cardinals. But a positive increase in activity from Wednesday to Thursday is a good sign. If there aren’t any setbacks at Friday’s walkthrough, Jackson could get the green light to play.
So how should the Falcons use Jackson in his first game back, if he does indeed play?
With only 14 carries to examine, Jackson’s sample size is pretty small to be making broad determinations. But the numbers for both his limited number of carries this season and the Atlanta run game as a whole are staggering.
In Week 1 Jackson carried the ball 11 times, five to the left and six to the right. He averaged 1.8 yards per carry left and 11.5 to the right. That 11.5 yards per carry figure was greatly enhanced by a 50-yard run, but still, if you take it away, at 3.8 yards per carry Jackson was much more proficient to the right side.
Jackson only carried the ball three times in Week 2 before his injury. He lost two yards on his two carries to the left and gained two yards on one carry to the right.
Atlanta, as a team, has the same kind of success in regard to directional running.
On 41 carries this season to the left side, the Falcons have gained 87 yards and averaged 2.12 yards per carry. On 66 carries to the right, Atlanta is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has amassed 311 yards.
|2013 Atlanta Falcons Rushing Directional Report|
|Games Statistics & Information System|
These trends seem to suggest Jackson head toward and/or around right guard Garrett Reynolds and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood when he carries the football Sunday.
Ease Jackson In
On Jackson’s personal blog, back on Sept. 27, he wrote that he didn’t want to return to the field of play until he was 100 percent:
But I have to be patient. That's just part of being mature as a player. I know my body, and I have to make sure that I'm right. I don't want to come back too soon, and just be an average guy on the football field. When I come back, I want to be 100 percent healthy and be the dynamic running back who can catch the ball, run between the tackles and do all the things that I've done.
On Wednesday, when Jackson spoke to the media, he said he was going to attempt his comeback in Week 8, but admitted that he was not 100 percent, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
I don't think any time after Week 1 you are 100 percent. But I feeling up to this point well enough to give it a go and be out there and be effective like Day One.
Because Jackson is not 100 percent healthy, not only should the Falcons dial down his workload, it may be smart to call plays to keep him out of harm’s way—at least as out of harm’s way as a ball-carrier can get.
Running off-tackle is probably better than getting knocked around between the tackles. Pulling a guard or getting some other form of lead blocker out in front of Jackson couldn’t hurt, either.
Before his injury, Jackson ran the football 14 times and caught six passes. He was targeted in the passing game 10 times. An equal run-pass ratio on Sunday might be a good idea for Jackson, and those targets in the passing game shouldn’t be over-the-middle passes where Jackson could get lit up by a linebacker or safety. If the Falcons could get Jackson out of bounds without taking a lick, his body would be appreciative.
It’s still not an absolute certainty that Jackson will play when the Falcons travel to the desert to play the Cardinals Sunday. If he does, Atlanta needs to be careful infusing him into the game plan, especially since he admits to not being 100 percent healthy.
In Jackson’s only full game this season, he made up 85 percent of the carries from the running back position and 62 percent of the targets from quarterback Matt Ryan to a running back in the passing game.
Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling (if Snelling is healthy enough to play) should be much more involved in the game Sunday than they were in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints. Limiting Jackson might not be what’s best for the Falcons in Week 8, but for the long term it could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.