Despite a setback loss to the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, Steven Jackson and the Atlanta Falcons still enter Week 13 tied atop the NFC South with a chance to solidify their spot at home. But to do so, the Falcons (4-7) will have to defeat one of the NFL's best teams so far, the Arizona Cardinals (9-2).
The Cardinals are a familiar foe for SJ39, who played the first nine years of his NFL career in the NFC West, battling Arizona twice every year.
Sunday will mark Steven's 17th career game against the Cardinals. In the previous 16, SJ has rushed for 1,156 yards on 298 carries, including three touchdown runs. In addition to facing the Cardinals 15 times as a member of the Rams, he did match up with them once last season as a member of the Falcons. It was one of the toughest games of Steven's career as he managed just six yards rushing on 11 carries in a 27-13 Falcons loss.
With that in mind, No. 39 knows full well he and the Atlanta offense will be faced with a challenge on Sunday afternoon against a Cardinals defense that features many of the same players.
"Those guys play together well as a unit," he said. "The organization, over the years, has taken advantage of their drafts getting depth and talent there as well. Collectively, this is a team that has returned the same guys, pretty much, from last year, and they look good."
The Cardinals have been stout once again this season against the run. They currently rank third in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game at 84.5.
Arizona also features one of the league stingiest defenses in terms of points allowed. They are one of only two teams to have allowed less than 200 points (195) through the first 11 games.
"Very good defense that we're going up against this week. They've got the best record in the NFL. They're playing with a lot of confidence, playing at a high level," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said. "They're missing some of the guys that have been really productive for them in the past, but the guys that have filled in have played well within the scheme. They put pressure on you with the scheme. They give you a lot of different looks week-to-week in their front seven."
The Arizona rush defense has been vulnerable in recent weeks, however. The Seahawks piled up 124 yards on the ground against Arizona last week and the week prior, Detroit's Joique Bell put up 85 rushing yards on his own against the Cardinals.
Steven will be looking to bounce back after consecutive games in which he's seen tough sledding on the ground. Since his 81-yard day against the Bucs three weeks ago, SJ has totaled just 75 yards on 30 carries over the last two games, though he did find the end zone for a touchdown late in last week's game against Cleveland.
No. 39 currently sits at 11,182 rushing yards, so with a modest 60-yard day on Sunday, he could pass both O.J. Simpson (11,236) and Corey Dillon (11,241) and move into 17th on the NFL's All-Time Rushing List.
According to Ryan, the key for the Falcons to execute and eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them in their losses will come down to communication.
"Your communication from a run game and a pass protection standpoint have to be on point because they give you so many different looks, and so many different pressures," he said. "I think that allows their guys in the back end to play confident and be opportunistic because they trust those guys up there to get pressure."
Their defense has kept the Cardinals afloat despite key losses on the offensive side of the ball, most notably quarterback Carson Palmer, who was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered three weeks ago against Steven's former team, the Rams.
Since then, the Cards have been guided by Drew Stanton, who will make his 10th career NFL start on Sunday in Atlanta. The Stanton era has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for the Cardinals, who were 6-0 with Palmer and just 3-2 with Stanton at the helm. Stanton might be getting some help on Sunday as Larry Fitzgerald may return after missing last week's game against Seattle.
In his best games, Stanton has been stellar, including a 300-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 14-6 win over the Detroit Lions last week. But Stanton has also proven himself shakable, as evidenced by last week's game against Seattle, when he threw for 149 yards, was unable to get the Cards on the end zone and was intercepted once.
After going his first four games without an interception, Stanton has been picked off three times in the last two weeks and forcing him into more turnovers will be a key for a Falcons defense that has become known for its ball-hawking ways in recent weeks.
Last week the Falcons picked off Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer three times and the previous week they intercepted Cam Newton twice in a win over Carolina. They currently rank eighth in the league with 12 interceptions this season.
But those big plays haven't come without their downside. Despite their ability to force turnovers, the Falcons currently rank last in the NFL against the pass, having allowed 284.1 yards per game through the air. Their jekyll and hyde ways haven't subsided in recent weeks as although he threw three picks last week, Hoyer also tossed for 322 yards and led the Browns down the field in the final minutes to set up a game-winning field goal.
The Falcons know their defense will have to be better than that to pick up a win over the Cardinals on Sunday and they could get a boost on the backend this week as safety William Moore is expected to play for the first time since Week 4.
Moore, who has missed seven games due to a shoulder injury knows that his teammates need him to step up and make plays.
"I need to come in there and contribute," he said. "I missed a lot of time, so it's going to be important that I come in and tackle well and know my assignment. I'm going to continue to go out there and play the way I've been playing. I'm sure I'll be alright playing Willy-Mo football. I'm going to take advantage of whatever opportunity I'm given."
The Cardinals enter Sunday's game reeling from a 19-3 loss last week to the Seattle Seahawks. With Seattle's win on Thursday night in San Francisco, Arizona's hold on the NFC West lead has shrunk to a game and a half, so, like the Falcons, they will be desperately seeking a victory on Sunday to get back on track atop their division.
Kickoff from the Georgia Dome is slated for 4:05 p.m. ET and the game can be seen on FOX.
- Game Preview: Falcons vs. Cardinals (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 29, 2014)
- Will Falcons' descent continue (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 29, 2014)
- Beware an opportunistic defense (The Falcoholic, Nov. 29, 2014)
- Ryan set to face Cardinals' tough defense (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 27, 2014)
- What lies ahead for the Atlanta Falcons (The Falcoholic, Nov. 27, 2014)
- Cards defense still strong without key players (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 26, 2014)
- Wednesday Press Pass: Falcons vs. Cardinals (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 26, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Interviews (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 26, 2014)
- Moore Hoping to Contribute in Possible Return (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 26, 2014)