Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is one of the best in the business at acquiring talent, as he’s proven on several occasions since taking over the head job in the Falcons’ front office in 2008. This offseason he made another great move, signing former St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson to a three-year, $12 million deal.
It was another bargain signing.
Although 29 years old, an age in which running backs tend to hit a velcro wall in their careers, Jackson still appears to have plenty left in the tank to play at a high level. He still runs very well, showing great vision and patience, albeit without the explosiveness he once had, and he’s still one of the league’s best pass-catchers out of the backfield. That latter skill, in particular, is what stands out when one starts imagining the kind of issues that he’ll now cause for defenses.
Last season, the Falcons were deadly through the air. Their top four pass-catchers had 317 receptions combined, including 53 from running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers is a solid outlet option for quarterback Matt Ryan, but he doesn’t run the same extensive route tree as Jackson does. Jackson has the ability to line up all over the field (despite not being used frequently as such) and he does a very good job of running routes.
One of the routes that Jackson, the presumed starter, will surely run is an option route out of the backfield. It’s essentially a two-way street for him that’s entirely dependent on the opposition’s leverage, which gives Jackson the advantage every time. That was obvious when he ran it and caught a short pass against the Detroit Lions this past season in Week 1.
He was lined up offset to quarterback Sam Bradford’s left in the Rams’ “11″ personnel, and then shifted over to Bradford’s right. The shift put him one-on-one with the Lions’ weak-side linebacker when the play began.
At the snap, Jackson released through the B-gap and ran straight at the defender. He stemmed his route just outside the right hash and then waited for the linebacker to declare his intentions. Would the linebacker be sliding inside or out? The defender slid outside, forcing Jackson to stick his right foot in the ground and cut inside.
Jackson’s plant and cut allowed him to create separation and run away from the linebacker as he crossed the middle of the field.
Once Bradford felt pressure from the Lions’ pass rush, he stepped back in the pocket and finally looked to Jackson, his outlet receiver, who was wide open at the left hash. Jackson hauled in the pass with soft hands for a five-yard gain.
The route was a simple one and the play wasn’t a big one, but it could easily be in Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s scheme. Koetter does a very good job of using his running backs in the passing game, as he allows them to run a variety of routes and have matchup advantages over slower linebackers, as I’ve written previously.
While Koetter likes to utilize his vertical passing threats, he also doesn’t mind calling for short passes from this concept, and throwing it to the tailback who is “leaking” out of the backfield and has a matchup advantage against a linebacker. This is where running back Jacquizz Rodgers, a small but dynamic runner, could come into play for the Falcons.
While Rodgers was effective last season, Jackson could be better because he’s more versatile and more skilled overall. Jackson is expected to start and he’s proven in the past that he can carry a heavy workload, which he could do once again as a factor in the running and passing game.