Coming off perhaps the most impressive offensive performance in franchise history in their 56-14 dismantling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Thursday, the forecast is looking bright for the Atlanta Falcons.
But as the Falcons (2-1) hit the road for Minnesota where they’ll be tested by the Vikings (1-2) on Sunday, Atlanta head coach Mike Smith is still looking at a few points of improvement.
This week, Smith challenged Steven Jackson and the Falcons offense to start fast again in Week 4 and prove that they can put together the same type of performance on the road as they have shown in the comfort of the Georgia Dome.
“It’s very important for us to start fast,” Smith said. “It’s one of the things that we have been talking about. We haven’t really started as fast as we like through the first three games, especially on the road. You get in there and move the ball and score; it can equalize some things, so it’s going to be important for us to start fast in all three phases.”
Starting fast has been a key for the Falcons since Smith’s arrival in 2008. Since then, the Falcons boast a league-high 269 points scored on their first offensive possession. Additionally, they have have posted a 46-16 record when scoring first under Smith.
The team’s quick start strategy worked to perfection last week against Tampa Bay. Atlanta turned to SJax multiple times on the first drive of the game, and his strong play opened up the Falcons to use No. 39 for a bevy play action fakes and score easily on their opening series. SJ finished the game with 54 yards on a season-high 14 carries including his first rushing touchdown of the season.
No. 39’s 14 carries represented more than a third of the rushing attempts from the Falcons’ four-headed backfield monster and Smith noted this week that he has been pleased with the way SJ and the running back corps have preformed thus far.
“Steven’s done a very good job as a tone setter for our football team,” Smith said. “And then there’s three other guys that deserve opportunities and have earned them to touch the football. I think they’ve done a good job with the opportunities that’s been presented to them.”
For Steven, making the most of those opportunities is all about being prepared. No. 39 has always prided himself on being the bell-cow back that his team can feed the ball to from start to finish, and although that hasn’t been his role so far this season in Atlanta, he noted this week that no matter how his role changes from week-to-week, he will always be ready to tote the rock when his number is called.
“It keeps me young,” he said of splitting carries. “The National Football League has changed. Guys like myself that pride ourselves on being ready, that’s all they have to do is just stay ready. So if my number is called and the coaching staff needs me more than what has been the last month, I’m ready for it. More than anything, I just have to make sure that I’m ready and prepared for whenever that may come.”
Over the course of his career, SJax has had a wealth of success against the Vikings. No. 39 has compiled 366 yards and three touchdowns in four career meetings with Minnesota—an average of 91.5 yards per game.
The Falcons will be leaning on Steven and the running game this week to get off to another one of those signature fast starts and put added pressure on a Vikings squad that has been out of sorts lately.
Minnesota is not only without running back Adrian Peterson, they’re also in the midst of a change at quarterback, where an injury to starter Matt Cassel last week forced rookie Teddy Bridgewater into the fire. Bridgewater will make his first NFL start against the Falcons on Sunday.
With their offense in disarray, the Vikings have lost each of their last two contests while scoring a total of just 16 points.
But the backbone of the 2014 Vikings has been their rush defense and last week they held the New Orleans Saints to just 108 yards on the ground.
However, with four runners more capable of impacting the game, the Falcons believe they are in better position to attack that Minnesota defense. As they prepare to take on the Vikings this week, the Atlanta running back quartet earned some high praise from quarterback Matt Ryan.
“Each of those guys are a little bit unique in their own way,” he said. “But at the same time all of them are physical, and that’s huge for us especially in those third and shorts. Last week, I think second or third drive of the game, we had third and one in the red zone and Steven (Jackson) was able to pound it through. Those kind of things are huge, in terms of scoring points. I really like where our run game is at.”
The passing game is in good shape as well. Through just three games, Ryan is already closing in on 1,000 yards though the air with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Additionally, SJ39, Ryan and the rest of the Falcons should be fresh as ever for Sunday’s tilt.
Because they last playing last Thursday night, the Falcons managed to fit in plenty of rest and an extra practice to prepare for the Vikings. Smith believes the extended prep his players had should set them up to be in peak condition as they head north to Minneapolis.
“The guys had three days off, so we wanted to get a sweat going and I thought that they did a very good job in regards to coming out here and working,” Smith said. “They’ll have (Tuesday) off and return on Wednesday, when we’ll start our game plan for the game this weekend. We’ve got a plan for these guys; you’ve got from Thursday, it’s like a mini-bye week, and you get an opportunity to rest some guys and get come guys healthy.”
Rise. Work. Work Harder. Repeat. #RISEUP @Atlanta_Falcons
— Steven Jackson (@sj39) September 23, 2014
Kickoff of Sunday’s game is slated for 4:25 p.m. ET and the game can be seen on FOX.
- Transcript: Smith Post- Practice Interview (AtlantaFalcons.com, Sept. 25, 2014)
- Falcons Fit in Extra Practice After Short Week (AtlantaFalcons.com, Sept. 22, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Interviews (AtlantaFalcons.com, Sept. 24, 2014)
- Wednesday Press Pass: Falcons at Vikings (AtlantaFalcons.com, Sept. 24, 2014)