As the Atlanta Falcons got set to begin the 2014 season last week, Steven Jackson talked openly about the team’s drive to wash the bitter taste of a disappointing 2013 season out of their mouths. On Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, SJ39 and the Falcons took the first step in that process.

SJ took the field for his second season with the Falcons and helped them to a Week 1 win over New Orleans (Falcons photo).

The Falcons came from behind to win their Week 1 battle with the New Orleans Saints 37-34 in overtime. The victory came in stark contrast to last season’s Week 1 loss to the Saints in New Orleans, and the Falcons hope there’s more where that came from ahead this season.

“I think that this game today lived up to the rivalry,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said afterward. This is what this rivalry is all about. I thought that it was a very hard fought game, had to go beyond 60 minutes.”

While the Falcons won the game on the strength of a record-breaking day by quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for a Falcons single-game high 448 yards, they needed all they could muster out of their running game and No. 39 led the way for Atlanta’s four-headed monster on the ground.

SJax carried 12 times for 52 yards at the forefront of a Falcons running game that accounted for 108 yards rushing and 73 yards receiving between four players. Afterward, Smith commended his ground quartet and noted that the offense’s use of all four runners could confound opponents, making it a recipe for success.

“I thought it was done very well, in terms of our rotation with our running backs,” he said. “I think that we’ve been talking about it offseason, so I don’t think that it should’ve been a surprise.”

It was not a surprise, however it didn’t go so smoothly at the outset of the game. Atlanta possessed the ball twice in the first quarter and struggled to get anything going offensively.

Steven got the start and was stuffed on his first run for a gain of just one yard. The Falcons eventually went three-and-out and the Saints turned their subsequent drive into a second field goal to go up 6-0. Atlanta went back to SJ39 twice more on its next drive, but those handoffs only totaled seven yards and the drive came undone when Julio Jones fumbled, giving the ball back to the Saints.

New Orleans turned that turnover into a scoring drive and possessed a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter. But it was in that second quarter that Atlanta’s offense finally established a rhythm that swung momentum back in favor of the Falcons.

On their third drive of the game, one that ate up most of the clock in the second quarter, Atlanta started from their own 20 and proceeded to march 80 yards on 14 plays as nearly 11 minutes ticked off the clock.

Steven broke free for his biggest play of the game on Atlanta's third drive, a 17-yard first down run (Falcons photo).

Steven helped out in a big way over the course of the drive. His first carry of the quarter came on the drive’s fourth play, when he took a handoff from Ryan up the middle for five yards. The Falcons went back to SJ39 two plays later with an inside handoff and SJax took that same familiar path up the middle, gashing the Saints defense for 17 yards and a first down on 2nd and 15.

Later in the drive, SJ was the recipient of a pass, which he took for a short gain. He also aided the passing game as a steadfast blocker for Ryan, who completed the drive with a two-yard scoring strike to Roddy White, which cut Atlanta’s deficit down to just six, 13-7.

“There was a momentum shift at that point,” says Ryan. “Certainly, that is what we needed to win this game.”

Roddy White's touchdown put the Falcons on the board and kicked off their climb to victory.

The Saints offense did manage to answer with a touchdown of their own in the waning minutes of the half, but left enough time on the clock for Ryan to complete a pair of big passes to Devin Hester and White. The 33-yard strike to White put Atlanta in Matt Bryant’s field goal range and the kicker drilled a 40-yard field goal to cut the Saints lead to 20-10 at halftime.

In the second half, the Falcons picked up right where they left off as Ryan connected with Jones and White on back-to-back plays to open the half. On the third play of the drive, Atlanta went to the ground and Steven pushed through for a gain of four to get the Falcons across midfield. SJ39 had two more carries on the drive, which ended in a one-yard TD pass from Ryan to tight end Levine Toilolo to pull Atlanta within three, 20-17.

After a stop by the Falcons defense, Steven opened the next Atlanta drive with an impressive run off right tackle to gain 10 yards. However, the Falcons could not build on the play and punted back to New Orleans, still trailing by three.

The Saints appeared primed to expand their lead when Drew Brees connected with Marques Colston for a 57-yard gain to the Atlanta 17 on the second play of the ensuing drive. But three plays later, Brees was picked off in the end zone by Robert McClain, putting the ball back in the hands of Ryan and the Atlanta offense.

After a rough first quarter Falcons offense produced at an elite level for the rest of the game (Falcons photo).

This time, the Falcons utilized some of their different options at running back with success. Rookie Devonta Freeman had carries of five and 10 yards, and the drive was quickly capped when Ryan connected with Antone Smith for a screen pass that Smith took 54 yards for a touchdown that gave Atlanta its first lead of the game, 24-20.

“We’ve got guys that deserve touches that play the running back position. There were some big plays. The Antone Smith play was huge. Devonta had a big first down for us,” Smith said. “We’re going to keep rotating our players. That’s why I said we don’t have 11 starters. We’ve got 14 or 15 on both sides of the football.”

The Falcons carried that lead into the fourth, but early in the quarter, New Orleans re-gained the lead on a Mark Ingram touchdown run. After the teams traded punts, it was Atlanta’s turn to seize back control.

After Ryan opened the next Atlanta drive with a 23-yard completion to Jones, the Falcons went back to the ground, where SJ picked up four yards on a first down run.

No. 39 and his fellow running backs set the tempo for Atlanta, allowing QB Matt Ryan to enjoy a record-setting day (Falcons photo).

The next four plays were all through the air as Ryan used his slot receivers Hester and Harry Douglas to move Atlanta into the red zone. Once there, Jacquizz Rodgers got into the act with a first down run that he took all the way to the end zone for six.

After the game, Ryan complimented all the members of Atlanta’s ground attack for putting him in a position to succeed.

“When you have veteran guys out there that have been in this game for a long time it allows you to be more multiple than when you have young guys out there,” he said. “So having those guys back on the field is big for us. It gives us our full complement of what we want to do offensively. Certainly it allows us to go as fast, or as slow as we want to go.”

The Rodgers score put Atlanta back in front by four with under three minutes remaining, but that lead was short-lived as Brees and the Saints marched 71 yards on eight plays in 90 seconds, capped by another Ingram scoring run to make it 34-31 in favor of New Orleans.

Fortunately, the Falcons were able to utilize their timeouts at the end of the Saints’ drive to ensure they had a chance to answer and Ryan got the ball back with 1:20 to go. With that time, Ryan did just what he had at the end of the first half, completing two big passes to get into range for Bryant, who knocked one through from 51 yards out to tie the score.

The Saints won the overtime coin toss, but on the second play of their subsequent drive, Colston fumbled and the loose ball was recovered by Atlanta’s Joplo Bartu at the New Orleans 38-yard-line. From there, the Falcons handed the ball to Steven twice and he gained four yards between the runs, setting up Bryant for the game-winning field goal, which he made from 52 yards out to give Atlanta the 37-34 win.

“In this League it’s about winning close games,” Smith said. “Twenty to twenty-five percent are three points are less, 55-60% depending on what year, are one score or less. We’re going to have lots of opportunities to have those types of games. That’s what the NFL is all about.”


The Falcons (1-0) will look to keep up the momentum from their season opening win next Sunday when they head to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals (1-0). Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET and the game can be seen on CBS.