Entering perhaps the biggest weekend of the 2014 season so far, and one of the biggest of his 11-year career, Steven Jackson is as focused as he's ever been on helping his team get a win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Falcons (5-9) head to New Orleans this weekend to take on the Saints (6-8) Sunday in a NFC South showdown with huge playoff implications. The game is just the latest chapter in a long rivalry between the two teams, and New Orleans cornerback Keenan Lewis added some fuel to the fire this week, promising that the Saints would end Atlanta's season early.
When told of Lewis' words, SJ shrugged off the trash talk and told reporters that it's not something that a competitor should let affect them.
"I would never allow trash talk to bother me," he said. "That's just my upbringing. It was something I didn't participate in and something I definitely don't particularly pay attention to. If you're able to talk trash and back it up, kudos to you. But everyone can't do that. Ultimately, it's a team sport. He can have a dominating game, but it still doesn't mean anything. It's about what he and his teammates do collectively."
The Falcons will need that focus come Sunday in New Orleans with their postseason hopes on the line. After a close 27-20 Week 15 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Falcons fell to third place in the South with two games left in the season, making winning each of their last two games absolutely vital to their hopes to represent the division in the postseason.
But although the big picture dictates that the Falcons need to win twice to win the South and make the playoffs, SJ knows Atlanta can't win two games without first winning one, and he's also aware they won't be able to win one unless they execute better this Sunday than they have the last two weeks.
As a veteran presence in the Falcons locker room, this week SJ39 has honed in on the little things he and his team can do better to win each game. According to Steven, one of the most important things the Falcons must be better at this week is finishing drives on offense, which he believes they can do by valuing each possession and eliminating turnovers.
"I think being 100 percent in the red zone, making sure we take advantage of opportunities that may present themselves in the game," Steven said. "Whoever has the ball make great decisions with the ball and make explosive plays."
The Falcons enter Sunday's showdown with the Saints riding a two-game losing streak, but they remain very much alive in the NFC South title picture thanks to a pristine 4-0 record in the division. That includes a thrilling 37-34 win over New Orleans in Week 1 of the season in Atlanta. A win over the Saints this Sunday would mean a season sweep, which would give the Falcons the tiebreaker should the teams finish with the same record.
As they look to keep their playoff hopes alive and matchup with the potent offense of the Saints, Atlanta knows they'll have to ride a balanced offense to do so. That starts with establishing the run and getting SJ39 the football early.
Steven has been a big reason the Falcons have made their way into the playoff hunt late in the season. He has totaled 698 yards and six scores on the year, including four touchdowns and four 50-plus yard performances in the last eight games.
In nine career games against the Saints, SJ is averaging nearly 17 carries per game for 85 yards and he has found the end zone seven times in his career against the Saints. In their last meeting, that week one matchup at the Georgia Dome, S-Jax had 52 rushing yards on 12 carries. He last found the end zone against New Orleans in Week 12 of last season, when he carried 11 times for 63 yards and a score in a 17-13 Falcons loss.
Atlanta will be looking for SJ to reach paydirt again on Sunday, as they aim to overcome some recent woes finishing drives that reach the red zone. An inability to cash in when a drive gets inside the 20 has been an issue for the Falcons at times this season, particularly in the last few weeks.
"Any time late in the year and when you're playing any good football team it's huge when you have your opportunities you've got to hit them, specifically in the red zone," Ryan said. "When you've got point scoring opportunities you've got to come away with seven. That'll be a point of emphasis for us all week. We'll work really hard in the red zone and hopefully have a great plan and execute it really well."
Now one of the game's top 16 rushers of all-time, SJ prides himself on being able to run between the tackles and pick up those important red zone yards. He brings a different mindset to his runs when his squad is within striking distance and in need of six points.
"Don't allow just one guy to bring me down," Steven said. "A lot depends on how aggressive I can be downhill. If it's a play to the outside, I can't be as aggressive as if I was running a power play, but the definite mindset through and through is not letting one man bring me down."
The Falcons are likely to have plenty of opportunities to make plays and put points on the board against a Saints defense that is ranked 26th in opponents passing yards per game (257.1) and 29th in opponents rushing yards per game (132.9). But despite those stats, Ryan knows Atlanta must be wary of the playmaking New Orleans defense.
"I think they're opportunistic," Ryan said. "Again, statistics are what they are. They happen in different games, and they've given up some big plays, but at the same time they've made some big plays. Last week creating the turnovers that helped them win that football game. They're tough, we know that going into it, and they're physical. They play with great passion. In these kind of division games that always shows up."
The Saints defense showed off their keen ability to create turnovers last Monday night when they forced Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler into three interceptions in a 31-15 New Orleans win.
One of the keys to the game for Atlanta in all three phases will be winning the turnover battle and Falcons head coach Mike Smith knows that will be a challenge against a quarterback as prolific as Saints QB Drew Brees.
"Drew does a very good job," Smith said of Brees. "We've got to win the turnover battle. Right now they're 1-6 when they don't win the turnover battle this season. I think that's probably the biggest ‘must' that we have to get accomplished is we've got to make sure that we don't turn the ball over, and when we get an opportunity to take it away we take it away."
Brees and the New Orleans offense enter the game coming off one of their most complete performances of the 2014 season. The quarterback threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in Chicago on Monday night, adding to another strong statistical season totaling 4,358 yards, 31 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions in 14 games.
The Saints are currently ranked third in the NFL in passing offense at 301.8 yards per game and ninth in rushing offense averaging 120.8 rushing yards per contest.
That running attack has been led by a breakout season from another player that the Falcons defense will have to focus on, fourth-year running back Mark Ingram. It took a few years for the 2009 Heisman Trophy Winner to reach the potential he was thought to have as a first round pick of the Saints in 2011, but he has hit that potential in 2014.
Ingram is on the cusp of his first 1,000-yard rushing season with 869 yards on 199 carries, including seven touchdown runs. He is also a threat in the passing game with 24 receptions for 124 yards, and Smith knows that slowing down Ingram is one of the keys to beating the Saints.
"Sean (Payton) wants to run the football. It sets up his passing game. It sets up his ability to throw the ball down the field," Smith said. "Ingram's run the ball very well. It's going to be important for us to stop the run. I thought we did a good job last week, so that's not going to have any bearing on what we do this week. We've got to go out and execute against a different scheme, in terms of what they're going to try to do."
In addition to competing with a balanced and productive Saints offense and an oppurtunistic Saints defense, the Falcons will have to deal with the raucous home crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where Atlanta has not won since 2010.
However, the Saints have been more vulnerable at home this year than usual and currently hold a 3-4 record at the Superdome this season. But Ryan knows the Falcons can't rely on anything that's happened in the past and must focus forward to get the win they need on Sunday.
"We're at the point of the season we know where we're at," Ryan said. "We know what we've got to do. We've got to prepare as best as we can. Ultimately, we've got to find a way to get it done on Sunday. I think how you do that, is you make sure that you cross everything off during the week, and you're as prepared as you can be to cut it loose and play your best on Sunday."
Kickoff from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is slated for 1 p.m. ET and the game can be seen on FOX.
- 5 Things: Ryan not fazed by Saints' talk (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 17, 2014)
- Falcons brush off Lewis' trash talk (ESPN.com, Dec. 17, 2014)
- Saints have healthy respect for Falcons' offense (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 17, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Interviews (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 17, 2014)
- Wednesday Press Pass: Falcons at Saints (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 17, 2014)
- Dirk Koetter unconcerned with red zone misses (ESPN.com, Dec. 17, 2014)