FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was interesting watching Steven Jackson field catches out of the Jugs machine earlier this week.
The Atlanta Falcons running back probably went through the drill to regain his feel for the game after being sidelined since Week 2 with a hamstring injury. But, to be honest, the last thing the Falcons need Jackson to worry about is hauling in passes.
They need him to run the ball -- and run the ball some more -- to help resuscitate a dying running game.
Jackson, listed as probable on the injury report, is set to play against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The 30-year-old isn’t the guy who used to barrel over defenders while a member of the St. Louis Rams. But Jackson did average 7.0 yards per carry in the season opener at New Orleans. He rushed for 77 yards that day.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Jackson knows he has to help bring that running-game balance back to the offense, particularly with Roddy White still sidelined by hamstring and ankle injuries and Julio Jones out for the season following foot surgery.
"Anytime you lose two explosive receivers, things have to change," Jackson said. "We always talked, before the injuries occurred, about being a balanced offense. We want to continue on that theme, continue to make sure that we get the running game fixed. We [want to] be able to create first downs and get some tough yardage, when need be, but to be able to make sure that we keep the defense honest, more than anything."
The Falcons did well in the running game without Jackson in Week 3, when Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling helped the team gain a season-high 146 yards on 30 carries by each rushing for 4.8 yards per carry. But the past three weeks, the Falcons have gained just 140 rushing yards on 55 attempts, including 18 yards on 18 carries last week against Tampa Bay.
The Falcons have had success with Rodgers in the screen game, so it would be wise to keep that element in the game plan. But Jackson has to be the reliable, rugged, downfield force the Falcons expected him to be, especially with Snelling sidelined by an ankle injury.
When the Falcons went 1-for-6 in the red zone against the Patriots, many wondered how much Jackson would have helped the cause. Now, he has a chance to show everyone what the Falcons were missing.
It won’t be easy against a stingy Cardinals defense ranked seventh in the NFL against the run (97.0 yards per game). Plus, it’s unclear how much of a workload Jackson will have coming off the injury.
"The speed of practice and the speed of the game are just two totally different things," Jackson said. "The confidence in the leg has to continue to grow, make sure that I’m not compromising, not overcompensating for the injury that occurred. Just have to continue to make sure that I’m able to help the team, not hurt them. And making sure that I’m able to give them 100 percent."