THE FALCONS' passing attack has everything: game-changers, possession guys, balance. The receiving trio of Julio Jones (with his rare alloy of size and speed), Roddy White (unbelievable strength in traffic) and Harry Douglas (a little of each) is well-blended; tight end Tony Gonzalez, even at 37, is an athletic pass-catcher and a beast in the middle of the field; and quarterback Matt Ryan, thanks to all that firepower, is an MVP candidate. And yet Atlanta's offensive shortcoming was exposed in the NFC Championship Game, when it blew a 17--0 lead to the 49ers. In the end the Falcons, held to 81 yards on 23 carries (a 3.5-yard average), couldn't grind out the game. The 49ers, meanwhile, gobbled up 149 rushing yards and scored their final two TDs running.
Good teams win to run (not the other way around), meaning that they build leads and power home victories on the ground. The Falcons, who ended the 2012 season with 30-year-old plodder Michael Turner averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry, and who ranked 29th with 87.3 rushing yards per game, couldn't do that.
The flaw was obvious, and the Falcons remedied it efficiently in the off-season. After nine years in the NFL without once tasting a winning record with the Rams, Steven Jackson, 30, voided the final year of his contract and signed with Atlanta for $12 million over three years. It's a good deal only if Jackson becomes the type of threatening bruiser that defenses have to respect—something that few running backs of his age have been. Only 44 times in NFL history has a back aged 30 or over rushed for more than 1,000 yards, but 16 of those have come in the past decade. "I think that's average," Jackson says of the poor track record of thirtysomethings. "That, to me, is talking about average guys that have done average things. I don't think I'd [be playing at] 30 if I wasn't more than that."
The tape on Jackson—even with 2,415 carries on the meter—reveals something far above average. At 6' 2", 240 pounds, he's built like a tank, yet possesses terrific speed for his size. Against the Cardinals last season, he cut back a designed run over right tackle and made linebacker Sam Acho look foolish in the open field. Instead of going out-of-bounds, he saw hard-charging safety Kerry Rhodes, sought him out with his lead shoulder and picked up another eight yards.
And yet, if you were to poll NFL defensive players, Jackson would be a runaway favorite for being the most underappreciated back during his time in the pros.
"Four or five years into my career, that bothered me," Jackson says of being underrated. "It really, really got under my skin. But now, seeing that my peers appreciate the way I go about business and seeing a lot of people build me up—the next thing they wait for is the fall. I've been so under the radar that I've been able to get to year 10 and still be a surprise to a whole new crowd."
"He's kind of a throwback at the position," Ryan says of Jackson. "He does everything well. He's not a one- or two-down back, or even just a third-down back. I think that makes it extra tough for defenses to defend [us]."
Throwback, yes, but with speedster Jacquizz Rodgers and versatile Jason Snelling rotating into the backfield, he won't have to be a workhorse. If that rotation conserves energy, Jackson—the kind of back who needs to be gang-tackled even when he isn't fresh—should open up space for Ryan. Or Jackson could close games out on his own, something the Falcons couldn't do against the 49ers last January.
Only one time in the past decade has an over-30 running back rushed for 1,000 yards and won a Super Bowl. That was Corey Dillon, another talented runner tired of losing (with the Bengals), who got his ring after he was traded to the Patriots. The Dillon-Patriots pairing proved the perfect match between a back in need of a supporting cast and a talented team that needed one piece to win a title.
Jackson thinks his arrival in Atlanta can have that kind of ending. "I've been the most consistent runner the last nine years," he says, "and I plan on doing that for more now that I've been given a fresh breath and a new opportunity. I want to prove that I'm bringing something to the team, not just [riding] on coattails."
THE CASE FOR...
Outside linebacker/end Osi Umenyiora
In 2012, Atlanta ranked 28th in the league with 29 sacks. Veteran end John Abraham, the man who had 34.5% of those takedowns (10), was cut at age 34 and signed very late with the Cardinals. Enter the free agent Umenyiora, who ranks 10th among active players, with 75 sacks. G.M. Thomas Dimitroff must see something special in the 31-year-old former Giants end because his combined 15 sacks in '11 and '12 was his worst two-year total since his first two seasons; and now he'll be asked to do more things as the weakside OLB when coordinator Mike Nolan's flex defense lines up in a 3--4. "Never really done that before," Umenyiora says of playing in a two-point stance. But as coach Mike Smith points out, his won't be a wholesale change; teams now play most of their snaps out of nickel or dime packages anyway, and Umenyiora will play with a hand on the ground in those. "He's not done a whole lot of [that]," says Smith, "but with the flexibility we want, it gives us an opportunity to disguise." Umenyiora will be paramount because, frankly, the rest of the pass rush showed it had a way to go in the preseason. The experience he brings should help.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
(N) NEW ACQUISITION
PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RB STEVEN JACKSON
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES