Falcons don't want to come up short

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson made it look so easy during the last matchup with the New Orleans Saints.

Facing a third-and-goal on his team's initial drive, Jackson took a handoff from Matt Ryan and vaulted his 6-foot-2, 240-pound body over the top of the pile for a score.

If only it could be that simple on every short-yardage play.

"Goal-line situations are honestly harder than (typical) short-yardage because of the amount of field the defense has to cover," Jackson said. "So, it's just attitude. You have to come down there with a toughness and mentality saying that as a running back, I know that I have to take on two."

Last year, the Falcons actually were a respectable 12-of-17 on third-and-short run plays and converted 1 of 2 fourth-and-1 run plays, and Jackson didn't even play the full season. But that still falls below the 75-percent standard the Falcons have set for short-yardage situations. Just a slight improvement, particularly in goal-to-go scenarios -- where the Falcons ranked 24th last season -- could make the difference in pulling out a close game.

Jackson, who turned 31 in July, might not break free for 1,000 yards this season. He still has the physical tools, however, to consistently pick up the tough yards, particularly with three other capable backs in Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith, and rookie Devonta Freeman ready to keep him fresh and share the workload.

"Short-yardage, it really starts with the offensive line and ends with us," Jackson said. "From last year, we made those improvements from that unit. And as a running back -- particularly me because I'll be in there most of time -- like I said, I always expect that I've got to make two guys miss."

The Falcons hope one particular play in the preseason isn't symbolic of how they'll fare in short-yard situations during the regular season. In the third and most meaningful exhibition game against Tennessee, Rodgers got stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Titans' 20-yard line.

Center Joe Hawley says that was an aberration.

"That was just a schematic thing: I made the wrong call," Hawley said. "That didn't have anything to do with physicality. There was an unblocked guy. Coach [Mike] Tice said, 'I'm glad it happened in the preseason, when it doesn't count.' Now we know. I'm the guy trying to get everyone on the same page. That's my job. So when something doesn't happen the right way, it falls on me because I'm the one telling them what to do.

"Short yardage has been an emphasis for us. I think we've improved along the offensive line. I think we'll get it right. And hopefully, Coach [Mike] Smith trusts us in those fourth-and-1 situations, which I know he does."