The first half of the 2014 season didn't nearly go according to the plan for Steven Jackson and the Atlanta Falcons, but after taking advantage of the bye week as an opportunity to regroup, the Falcons got back to work this week with a renewed sense of energy and focused on changing their fortunes in the second half.
"I think individually and collectively as different groups, we all saw things that we can get better at," Steven said of the opportunity afforded by the bye week.
The Falcons (2-6) get their first opportunity to improve on Sunday when they head to Tampa Bay to take on their NFC South division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7). It's a good place to start for Atlanta, as their last win came in a 56-14 drubbing of those same Buccaneers in Week 3 at the Georgia Dome.
In that game, SJ rushed for 54 yards on 14 carries, including a touchdown. As a group, Atlanta running backs tallied 142 yards and three touchdowns against Tampa. They'll be looking to duplicate that success against a Buccaneers rushing defense that ranks 18th in the NFL and has given up 114.6 rushing yards per game.
"As a leader of the running back room, I'll continue to just run hard, break more tackles, and continue to just play with the passion that we have been playing with, but magnify it. Everyone in every group can get better, and as the leader of my group, I'm going to make sure we do that."
The Falcons passing offense has an opportunity to get untracked against Tampa as well. The Bucs currently rank 31st in the NFL against the pass, allowing 285.3 yards per game through the air. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had his best and most efficient game of the season against Tampa Bay as he completed 21-of-24 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns.
But Ryan knows the Falcons can't lead on their past success against Tampa to guide them to another win on Sunday.
"It's a week-to-week League," Ryan said. "They, the following week went out and beat Pittsburgh. This a good football team; the record is what it is, our record is what is, but they play with great effort and they're very well-coached. I know going into it it's going to be a four quarter game, tough and physical and that's what you expect when you're in division."
That division race remains wide-open with an opportunity there to be seized by the Falcons, who, despite their overall record are unbeaten in divisional play so far this season. Atlanta currently sits a game and a half behind Carolina (3-5-1) for second place in the NFC South and two games behind New Orleans (4-4) for first. They still have two games remaining against the Panthers and one against the Saints, who they've already defeated once this season.
But before the can get to their other divisional foes, the Falcons will have to go through the Buccaneers once again. Both teams enter Sunday's contest coming off tough losses.
For the Falcons, it was the Week 8 heartbreaker in London that saw them establish a 21-0 lead over Detroit just to have it chipped away in the second half and lost on a last-second Lions field goal. That loss extended Atlanta's current losing streak to five.
Tampa Bay was also locked in a tight battle in their most recent game, last week in Cleveland. Despite their struggles against the run early this season, the Bucs held the Browns' three-headed running attack to just 50 yards on the ground, and took a 17-16 lead into the fourth. But Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer, who threw for 300 yards, hit receiver Taylor Gabriel for a 34-yard pass early in the fourth quarter and the Browns held on for a win.
The game did mark the second straight contest in which the Buccaneers had held their opponent under 100 total yards rushing, so the Falcons will be challenged to get their own running game going again coming out of the bye. Atlanta's rushing offense is averaging just 22 carries for 95.6 rushing yards per contest this season, while Ryan and the passing attack are averaging 38 attempts and 280 yards per game through the air. But Ryan knows the Falcons must run the ball successfully to have a chance to turn their season around.
"I think it's one of those things you try to get that running game going every chance you get. I thought Steven's done a great job for us all year. When he's had his opportunity to go in there and run the football, I think he's taken advantage of it. He's been physical for us. I thought he ran the ball effectively against them the first game," Ryan said. "I think across the board at that running back position it's probably our deepest position, one of the deepest positions on our team, and I think all four of those guys have done a great job in their own roles the entire year."
On the other side, the Falcons will be facing Bucs quarterback Josh McCown for the second time this season. McCown was injured in Tampa's Week 3 loss to Atlanta, and then saw Mike Glennon assume his starting job. But McCown gained the job back this week and will be looking to prove he deserves it on Sunday.
"He was the starter at the beginning of the season. He came with Lovie (Smith) from Chicago," Smith said. "He was injured in our game earlier on, but he's a very savvy veteran that actually, for 35-years old runs pretty good. He can move around, and extend some plays. Our preparation, we had an opportunity to see his two games prior to our game. He's healthy now, and they're going to move him back into the starting lineup."
The Atlanta defense enters Sunday's contest in need of a big bounce back game. In the Week 8 loss to Detroit, the Falcons stifled the Lions offense for the entirety of the first half, holding them scoreless with just 103 yards of offense. But Detroit bounced back in a big way in the second half totaling 282 yards, including 240 of Lions quarterback Matt Stafford's 325 passing yards. That big second half propelled Detroit to 22 unanswered points and the victory.
The Falcons defense currently sits last in the league in total defense as the only team in the league that has allowed more than 400 yards per game (408.8).
"It's not where we need it to be, said coach Mike Smith, who wants to see his team get more pressure on the quarterback. I think we have shown some improvement. It hasn't necessarily shown up on the sack tally, but I do feel that we've shown some improvement. It's not the improvement that we need; we need to have more."
According to Steven, the defense can feed off the offense and vice versa in order to get the Falcons back on track.
"Making plays, winning games, that all becomes contagious when guys see another guy making a play, you want the next guy to step up and do the same," he said. "We're all competitors. We're all professional athletes, and I think guys do want to make the play. It's just the matter of fact of going out there and doing it on a consistent basis."
Kickoff for Sunday's game between the Buccaneers and Falcons at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay is set for 1:00 p.m. EDT and it can be seen on FOX.
- Game Preview: Falcons at Buccaneers (AtlantaFalcons.com, November 8, 2014)
- Falcons vs. Buccaneers Preview (ESPN.com, November 7, 2014)
- Falcons' Open Locker Room: 11/5/14 (Falcoholic, November 5, 2014)
- Falcons look to power the ground game (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 5, 2014)
- Wednesday Press Pass: Falcons at Buccaneers (AtlantaFalcons.com, November 5, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Interviews (AtlantaFalcons.com, November 5, 2014)
- Transcript: Smith Press Conference (AtlantaFalcons.com, November 6, 2014)