METAIRIE, La. — List Atlanta’s many weapons on offense and you likely think of Matt Ryan’s endless array of options in the passing game.
Julio Jones. Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez. Harry Douglas.
It’s Steven Jackson, an offseason addition to the backfield, however, who is likely to take the Falcons offense to the next level.
And Sunday, minutes after the clock pushes past noon, the Saints will get the first opportunity to test out their reconfigured defense against one of the NFL’s most-underrated running backs and most-talented offenses.
“Unless you’re playing the Saints, you can look at offenses all across this league and you won’t see this much talent at every position,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We see it twice a year and it has been that way for a minute. They’ve had premier guys at every spot before.”
But it’s Jackson’s addition that could be the issue. In the past 10 games against the Falcons, the Saints have lost three of the five games in which Atlanta has reached the century mark on the ground.
The five times Atlanta failed to eclipse 100 yards? All Saints wins, including last year’s 31-27 win in New Orleans when they knocked Atlanta from the ranks of the unbeaten.
|Steven Jackson #39 of the St. Louis Rams runs for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints at the Edward Jones Dome on October 30, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Rams beat the Saints 31-21.|
“They went and got Steven Jackson for a reason so they’ll definitely be using him,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “We understand that.”
Jackson signed with Atlanta after nine years in St. Louis and he has had past success against New Orleans with bad Rams teams.
In six games versus New Orleans, he has a 5.12 yard-per-carry average and scored five touchdowns. He has two 100-yard games and another 97-yard performance. He has 10,135 career rushing yards, 56 career touchdowns and three Pro Bowl berths.
And he doesn’t appear to be slowing down, which the Saints hope they can reverse.
The question is how?
“Don’t let him get going,” Jenkins said. “He’s one of those guys that if you let him get through that first line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he’s hard to stop. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s instinctive. The biggest thing is to be able to get a body on him early before he can get going. That’s definitely easier said than done.”
Added Harper, “We’ve got to do a good job crowding this guy. Don’t let him get to that second or third level without anybody touching him. That’s when he’s at his best. That’s when he’s really bringing the boom.”
That would jibe with linebacker Curtis Lofton’s explanation as to how to keep Jackson from getting going.
“As a defense, you just have to be sound early on,” Lofton said. “Be gap sound. … And not expecting one guy to make the tackle. That’s how you’re going to stop him.”
The Saints can’t forget him in the passing game, either. He’s the only active running back in the NFL who has at least 10,000 rushing yards and at least 3,000 receiving yards.
Atlanta hopes his versatility makes it hard for defenses to defend its offense.
“Steven has a very good skill set, not only as a running back but as a receiving back,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “It gives you options on the offensive side where you don’t necessarily have to have a change of pace back. You can run the same personnel groupings and the same plays with Steven in the game.”