Stop me if you've heard these quips before: The Atlanta Falcons could easily run the ball if the offensive line was better or Steven Jackson is great, he just received no blocking this season! Those are sentiments commonly shared by a surplus of Falcons fans.
However, do those particular notions skirt around the fact that the Falcons lack talent at the running back position?
That's not to say the Falcons don't need major upgrades along the offensive line. It's more a thought on, when the Falcons do upgrade the line, do they have the talent to take advantage it?
To put it simply, they don't.
The Falcons' primary trio of running backs—Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling—carried the ball 297 times for 1,039 yards (3.49 yards per attempt). Both Jackson (157 attempts) and Rodgers (96 attempts) averaged 3.5 yards per carry while Snelling (44 attempts) generated 3.7 yards per attempt.
This put Atlanta among infamous teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints—squads that have little to no clue on how to succeed in the run game. This is a far cry from just a few seasons ago when the Falcons were the gold standard for generating yards on the ground.
A philosophy shift from hard-nosed to finesse is the primary culprit, with a lack of talent in the trenches being the secondary factor.
However, even with better talent and a more balanced attack, the Falcons' run game is in trouble as currently constructed.
As someone who has been a tremendous fan of Jackson's since his days at Oregon State University, I shuddered at the thought of Jackson being the Falcons' primary free-agent target last offseason.
After Atlanta was virtually "10 yards away" from participating in the Super Bowl, its brass felt as though the team was one or two veteran pieces away from procuring a spot in the big game.
For some odd reason, though, the Falcons decided Jackson was that piece.
Despite his age (30), mileage (nine-year veteran with over 2,400 attempts to his credit) and dip in production (4.1 yards per carry in 2012), the Falcons signed him to a three-year contract worth $12 million dollars.
For general managers, it's imperative that you target backs for what they project to do rather than what they have already accomplished, as the decline in ability happens rapidly at the position.
In Jackson's last season with the St. Louis Rams, he was unceremoniously supplanted in certain instances by rookie Daryl Richardson. He lacked his normal burst on a snap-by-snap basis and even looked to have lost some of his power.
Additionally, he seemed to get nicked up more than usual. Father Time was undoubtedly pulling into Jackson's driveway.
In his first season in Atlanta, those aforementioned characteristics plagued Jackson the entire season. He suffered a hamstring injury—coincidentally against the Rams—that kept him on the shelf for nearly seven weeks.
Even when healthy, however, he resembled an old Steven Jackson rather than the Steven Jackson of old.
While he ran in muddy waters, at times, due to the ineffectiveness of the line, there were plenty of instances where he just no longer had the ability to make plays like he used to.
Here we see the Falcons in "12 personnel" against the Buffalo Bills. The Falcons had an extra lineman in the game to really give the play a chance to make it.
The dive play was initially blocked to perfection. Although it seems like Jackson had a two-way go, the void in the right A-gap would've provided Jackson with less traffic. Running the football is all about gaining advantages. Being one-on-one with a linebacker should virtually always be in the favor of the back.
For a 6'2", 240-pound monster like Jackson, it should be easy for him to achieve a favorable gain—even against a great linebacker like Kiko Alonso as we saw here.
Jackson decided against forcing the defense's hand and chose to hit the left A-gap.
Jackson tried to squeeze his wide frame through the smaller hole and was gobbled up by the interior linemen. Jackson demonstrated a lack of vision, which is the No. 1 trait a successful back needs to have.
Furthermore, Jackson's 240-pound frame works against him, as it doesn't allow him to "get skinny" through gaps.
If you lack initial burst like Jackson does, you must have the ability to contort your body to fit through less-than-ideal holes. Moreover, that run had little to do with the offensive line, as it did its job.
This was totally on Jackson—something that's overlooked by most fans.
Here we see another dive by Jackson.
The coast was plainly clear in the A-gap, but Jackson chose to dance instead of hitting the gap decisively. Sometimes, the position calls for pure instincts, something that Jackson seemed to lack in the past two seasons.
Here Jackson was performing a dance step called "The Lunge." It seems as though Jackson decided he would bend this to the outside and realized his wheels were no longer that dynamic.
Instead, Jackson bends it back to the original hole that was now shut. His indecisiveness and lack of quickness worked against him on this play.
When people point to Jackson's 50-yard run against the New Orleans Saints in the team's first game of the season, they need to mention that the line was the primary factor.
On that particular play against the Saints, the line funneled everyone inside, which afforded Jackson a gaping hole.
It doesn't take much talent to achieve big gains on plays like this, where you are virtually alone. It takes a plethora of skills to make something out nothing, skills that shouldn't be expected from the soon-to-be 31-year-old Jackson.
If fully healthy, we can expect Jackson to be solid. However, the duo of Snelling and Rodgers leaves a lot to be desired. For my money, neither would see the field much, if at all, on a team with great running back depth like the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
Rodgers has been miscast as an explosive change-of-pace back, when in actuality he's the mini version Jackson...the 31-year-old Jackson.
At 5'6", 196 pounds, Rodgers is short, not small. His legs look like tree trunks and he runs as though the rest of the tree is strapped to his back. To put it mildly, he's slow. He has good initial burst, but lacks the extra gear to generate explosive runs. In fact, his longest run of the season was only 19 yards.
Veteran backup Antone Smith is everything the Falcons thought Rodgers would be when the latter was drafted three seasons ago. His five carries went for 145 yards, highlighted by a 50-yard touchdown. At 5'9", 192 pounds, Smith provides an authentic change of pace due to his blazing speed.
Look for him to battle Rodgers for the title of change-of-pace back in training camp.
Snelling is one of those players that excels at nothing, but is decent at everything. At 5'11", 234 pounds, you would think that Snelling is a power back. He's a finesse player that has good hands and technique. He's also good in pass protection, as he understands blitz concepts.
With that said, he's extremely slow and lacks any kind of burst—not to mention he'll be 31 years old himself at the end of next season.
That's why Atlanta needs to think really hard about cutting Snelling and drafting its primary back of the future.
Drafting Lache Seastrunk out of Baylor University would give the Falcons an explosive back in the mold of Kansas City Chief Jamaal Charles. At 5'9", 210 pounds, Seastrunk has the size, vision and cutting ability to take the run game to the next level.
More importantly, he has the burst to not only flip the field, but make plays when the offensive line doesn't provide much to work with. Even with a revamped line, there's no certainty that the Falcons' production will improve.
Adding more talent in the backfield might tip the scales in the Atlanta's favor.
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.
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