When he takes the field on Sunday, Steven Jackson will be facing down the opportunity to do something incredibly unique on a global stage while also leading his team to a much-needed victory.
Steven and the Atlanta Falcons meet the Detroit Lions on Sunday at world famous Wembley Stadium in London, England as part of the NFL's International Series and SJ39 enters the contest just two yards shy of passing Warrick Dunn into 19th on the NFL's all-time rushing list and just 34 yards away from the 11,000-yard milestone.
It would be almost fitting that No. 39, a man with a passion for international culture, would reach the mark overseas. When he's not playing the game he loves, Steven has been known to trot the globe and has made a few stops in London prior to this week's trip. In fact, Sunday won't even mark the first game SJ39 has played at Wembley.
His St. Louis Rams visited the city back in Week 8 of the 2012 season to take on the New England Patriots, and although the Rams lost that game 45-7, that experience has proven valuable to the Falcons in their preparation for their Week 8 battle with the Lions. Head coach Mike Smith has used SJax as a resource to help the team through the week overseas.
"When we were putting together our schedule, and our plan, we asked what they had done before, and what his thoughts were on it," said Smith. "He gave me a lot of insight on what the players are thinking, and what they may be doing. I think you've got to have collaboration in anything that you do, and you want your players to be involved in some of these decisions, especially when it's a week-long trip over here."
In going over the setting with his teammates, Steven stressed that they should expect a large crowd, but a mostly neutral one like they would encounter at the Pro Bowl, because London-based fans are mostly fans of the game and its stars, not as much of individual teams like in the U.S. But the most important message Steven had for his teammates actually regarded their choice of footwear for the game.
"We have to make sure we have the right footwear and make sure we’re really conscious of that because the field itself is quite different from what we’re used to in Atlanta," he said. "We’re practicing at Arsenal, so we’ll get used to being on a soccer field or pitch here. It’s quite a different type of grass, the way they take care of and manicure it is quite different, for the sharp cuts and explosive moves that we make."
Steven told reporters at his media session on Thursday that he has enjoyed his experience in London during the trip. He credited the British people and the growing London NFL fanbase with making he and his teammates feel welcome and even hinted that as the fanbase grows, London may one day be ready to host a NFL team full-time.
However, as excited as No. 39 is to be back in London and for the opportunity to mark a milestone in his career on the Wembley Stadium pitch, those things are secondary this week and at the forefront of his focus is stopping the Falcons four-game losing streak.
"The facilities here have been very accommodating, making sure guys not only can get rest, but also can entertain themselves when we do have some down time," he said. "But we’re just trying to stay on our regular routine of the week. Regardless of whether we’re here in London or in Atlanta, it’s a work week for us. We got our sightseeing out of the way on Monday and Tuesday. The rest of the week is getting ready for the Detroit Lions."
Just like the Patriots team that met Steven's Rams at Wembley Stadium in 2012, this Lions squad will present quite the challenge for the Falcons.
Detroit rode a two-game winning streak over to London and has won four of their last five contests. Although the Lions feature a prolific offense, this season they have been led by their defense, which currently ranks No. 1 in the NFL, yielding just 290.3 total yards per game. They are the NFL's third-ranked defense against the run, holding opponents to just 73.4 rushing yards per game and sixth-best in the league against the pass, with 216.9 passing yards allowed per game.
It's a test that Atlanta will look to surmount with an offensive line that continues to change due to injury. Last week the Falcons lost center Peter Konz to a season-ending knee injury, the fifth member of the Atlanta O-line to hit IR since the start of the preseason. Undrafted rookie James Stone will now serve as the team's center, one of two rookies on the line along with first round pick Jake Matthews at left tackle. But SJ said this week the Falcons will not make excuses for their situation and the players in the lineup must execute.
"Once an injury happens, the next man is up and you just have to go from there," he said. "Chemistry is built through repetition, through practice and through games. We as professionals have to make the best of what happens and what this season presents to us. [Injuries are] unfortunate, but we need to bring those young guys along as quickly as possible.
The staggering losses along the offensive line may be one reason the Falcons have shied away from running the football in recent weeks. Atlanta started the season with a relatively balanced attack on offense and the results were strong. The Falcons' four-man running back rotation totaled more than 120 yards in three of the team's first four games and had 20 or more carries in four of the first five.
But over the last two weeks, the Falcons have given just 26 carries total to their four running backs. The lack of balance on offense has allowed opponents to key in on the passing game, which has made it more difficult on quarterback Matt Ryan and his receivers.
Two areas of emphasis for the Falcons this week have been on starting games better and putting themselves in better position in down and distance. Atlanta has struggled in both areas often this season, and as a result has been forced to play from behind, which also limits what they can do with their running attack. Ryan said attacking the dangerous Detroit defense early in the game, and early in downs, in an attempt to get them on their heels is a key to Sunday's clash.
"I think we need to score points early. We need to be in games, as opposed to playing from behind. We've had to do that a little bit the last couple of weeks," said Ryan. "The other thing I think we need to do is stay ahead of the chains. I think on first down and second down we need to be more efficient, so that you get into more situations that are conducive to running the football. We've got to score some points early and then, I think we've got to be really efficient on first and second down."
Steven said this week that he and his fellow running backs need to show patience and make the most of their opportunities when they get them. Having success on the ground is a formula known to generate more touches.
"We’re going to take whatever is on the plate for us," he said. "Guys are doing a good job of making the correct reads, doing a good job of protecting the football and playing really passionate and showing a lot of enthusiasm when we do get our chances and our touches. As far as making guys miss, running through tackles and getting some yards after contact, that depends on the ability of the guy. The four guys that we rotate, I trust that each guy is going to do their job to the best of their ability."
That won't be any easier against a Detroit defense that is anchored by one of the NFL's best defensive fronts. Steven knows full well the challenge that awaits he and his teammates on Sunday, but he's confident that the Atlanta offense has what it takes to succeed in this matchup.
"Very talented, they have three first round defensive linemen. They have Suh still playing really good football, unbelievable explosiveness for his size," Steven said of the Lions. "Their linebacking core has really come on strong as well very athletic, gifted group that gets downhill in a hurry. They've done a really good job as a defense overall being top five in a lot of statistical categories. It's going to be up to us. We are a very good offense and it's going to force us to execute and get back to the way we were playing ball earlier in the season."
Last Sunday, the Lions' defense bottled up the New Orleans Saints' rushing attack, limiting them to just 73 yards on the ground and did not allow individual runner to gain more than 30 yards.
But the Falcons feel their offense is ready to get back on track and they're confident in their preparation for Detroit's tough front seven. In film study this week, Atlanta put an emphasis on Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, who is having a great year thus far with 68 combined tackles and an interception.
"He's definitely playing really lights-out football — having a great year," said SJ on Thursday. "He's one of the guys that I've watched all week. His explosiveness and sideline-to-sideline speed [sticks out]. Once he recognizes or sees the ball, he does a really good job of avoiding blocks, getting to it. He's also doing a good job of getting his D-linemen off the double team because he's so fast."
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan shared the sentiments of SJ when talking about the Detroit defense.
"Some of the premier defensive lineman in the game, Suh's a very good player, and is playing at a high level. We're going to have to be solid up front; we really are. We're going to have to play well up front. We're going to have to have a good plan to account for where those guys are at, and that's what we're working on right now."
Suh in particular is a player SJ39 is very familiar with. The two are both Nike athletes and spent some of their little downtime this week together at Niketown UK promoting this weekend's game and Nike Football in London.
SJ said on Thursday that he considers the Lions defensive tackle a friend, but that just further motivates him to beat Suh and his Lions Sunday.
"We are good friends," Steven said. "But there’s no love lost between the two of us once we put our helmets on. We both compete at a very high level. He’s one of the best at his position and I have a lot of respect for him. But I have to protect Matt and I have to protect myself. Being friends, whoever gets the upper hand in this one, you have to hear about it until the next time."
Kickoff of Sunday's game between the Lions and Falcons is set for 9:30 a.m. EDT and it can be seen on FOX.
- Transcript: Smith Press Conference (AtlantaFalcons.com, October 23, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Interviews (AtlantaFalcons.com, October 22, 2014)
- Belief Strong Among Falcons For Turnaround (AtlantaFalcons.com, October 22, 2014)
- Falcons Know Lions' Levy Worth Watching (AtlantaFalcons.com, October 23, 2014)
- Barton joins Jackson and Suh for Niketown Event (The Daily Mail, October 22, 2014)
- Jackson Eying Lions' Front Seven (AtlantaFalcons.com, October 23, 2014)