If Steven Jackson can manage not to pass out when he sees fewer than eight defenders in the box for the first time since grade school, it’s clear he’ll have a chance to post fine and dandy numbers in Atlanta this year.
What’s not clear, and what has been the subject of some dispute since Jackson signed with the Falcons last month, is how the presence of a legit running back will impact the efficient, high-speed passing machine composed of Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and the magically unretired Tony Gonzalez, who has enjoyed a statistical resurrection in Atlanta, not unlike Jackson is poised to do.
I haven’t watched every Falcons snap from 2012, but I’ve watched enough to see that most defenses had no fear of Atlanta’s running game. The broken down, slow footed Michael Turner was a threat to bull through a linebacker or two on his way to a one-yard plunge into the end zone, but not much else.
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Jacquizz Rodgers, despite occasional burst that made him a prime fantasy bench stash, didn’t force defenses to adjust and defend against the run when he lined up behind Ryan. The trio of elite Atlanta pass catchers kept defenses on guard against one thing, and it sure wasn’t the run.
That all changes with the addition of Jackson, who looked as healthy and determined as ever during stretches of 2012, including Week 10, when he bulldozed a 49ers’ defense keying on the run. Jackson cracked the century mark against eight and nine-man fronts – a performance that went largely unnoticed in fantasy circles (unless you were facing Jackson, gnashing your teeth with every broken tackle).
A New Wrinkle
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter isn’t going to transform his offense into a run-first unit that will cap Ryan’s fantasy ceiling in 2013. Deploying Jackson in generous portions, however, will add something that was missing from Atlanta in 2012: play-action passing.
The Falcons used play action on a microscopic 15.8 percent of their 2012 plays, ranking 22nd in the league, behind offensive units with an even less intimidating run game, including the Colts and Packers.
It makes sense. Defenders aren’t going to react with any great urgency when Ryan threatens to stick the football in Turner’s chest. The same goes for Rodgers.
It’s a shame Ryan couldn’t use play action more during his breakout 2012 season. He was second behind only Peyton Manning in completion percentage (68.5 percent) on play-action fakes, and ranked sixth in yards per attempt after play action, just a tenth of a yard behind Drew Brees.
Ryan was tied with Ryan Tannehill as the top-rated quarterback on play-action fakes, likely thanks to Atlanta’s infrequent use of play action, according to Pro Football Focus. That doesn’t change the fact that Ryan was accurate and efficient when the Falcons used play action.
Jackson’s mere presence, even if he’s lost a half step after running for a million yards during his nine years in the NFL, will give Ryan one more way to manipulate defenses and get the ball to his wide receivers and tight end, who likely won’t face the same suffocating coverage they saw during large swaths of 2012.
As much as Jackson will benefit from the ever-present threat of a hall-of-fame tight end and two top-notch receivers who would demand respect in any offense, I think life will get easier for Jones, White, and Gonzalez too.
We can surmise that safeties won’t play as deep quite as often in hopes of offering a little deep-ball assistance to cornerbacks tasked with covering Jones and White with a bona fide running back in the Atlanta backfield. It’s this very prospect that makes me confident that we won’t see a significant statistical drop-off from Ryan in 2013, even if Koetter decides to run the ball an extra 50 times.
Jones and White saw more than their fair share of deep safeties last season, as Ryan threw more passes than all but six quarterbacks. And unlike Matthew Stafford‘s throw volume — dictated by big deficits, sometimes early in games — the Falcons offense clearly centered on the pass. If we could see that, you better believe opposing defensive coordinators were privy to Koetter’s aims.
Some threat of a running game, even from a soon-to-be 30-year-old running back with plenty of wear on his treads, can’t be anything but good for Falcons pass catchers.