The 2014 NFL season was one of highs and lows for Steven Jackson and the Atlanta Falcons.
After a frustrating 2-5 start, the Falcons regrouped and rebounded, fighting to within one game of winning the NFC South crown and earning a playoff berth. While SJ39 and Atlanta ultimately fell short of that goal, they have plenty of positives to draw from going into next season.
The Falcons kicked off their season with a matchup against the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome and, as expected, the showdown was a high-scoring affair. The two teams went back and forth all afternoon, but Atlanta ultimately prevailed with a 37-34 victory in overtime. The Falcons were led to victory by their rushing attack, which totaled 123 yards on the ground, including 52 rushing yards on 12 carries by SJax.
After dropping their first game of the season in Week 2, to the Bengals in Cincinnati, the Falcons gave football fans a treat during a Week 3 Thursday Night Football matchup in primetime. Atlanta hosted the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers and exploded offensively on the way to a 56-14 victory.
The Falcons had all three phases of their game in sync and scored the first 49 poins of the game. SJ39 carried 14 times and totaled 54 rushing yards, including a two-yard touchdown run that made it 49-0 in the third quarter. Atlanta's rushing attack as a whole finished with 144 yards and three touchdowns.
Atlanta's roller coaster season continued in Week 4 when the Falcons fell on the road 41-28 at the hand of the Minnesota Vikings. But after answering their first loss with a win just four days later, Atlanta couldn't bounce back again in Week 5 and the loss to Minnesota was the start of a downswing for the Falcons.
In Week 5 they played a tight game against the New York Giants, aided by a strong effort from Steven, who carried times for 37 yards and cuaght five passes for another 37 yards. SJ also found the end zone for the second time in the young season, and his first quarter scoring run knotted the game at 7-7. But after establishing a 20-10 lead late in the third, the Falcons offense stalled and their defense couldn't hold off the Giants, who scored the final 20 points of the game to win 30-20.
The outlook got bleaker for Atlanta over the next two weeks as they suffered their first home loss, 27-13 to the Chicago Bears in Week 6, then got blown out by the Baltimore Ravens 29-7 on the road in Week 7. That loss sent the Falcons overseas for one of the NFL's annual London games at Wembley Stadium where they played host to the Detroit Lions at Wembley Stadium.
The game was important to Steven for many reasons, not the least of which was his passion for travel and pride in representing the NFL on an international stage. It also represented an opportunity for SJ39, playing in his 151st NFL game to reach a milestone that only 18 other running backs have accomplished.
He seized that opportunity on his 10th carry of 18 on the day when he carried a slew of Detroit defenders from the six-yard-line to the goal line and tried to reach out for a touchdown before falling to the ground. Though his attempt to score fell short, No. 39 did break the plane of the 11,000-yard club on that historic carry. One play later, he finished the drive with a run untouched into the end zone to establish a 21-0 Atlanta lead.
As he wrote in a season-ending blog entry entitled "Older, Wiser, Stronger" the play was one of the highlight of SJ's season.
"It filled me with pride to be able to play a sport that I grew up loving, and share it with a whole other culture on that international stage. Then you add in being able to score on a run that took me over 11,000 yards in my career, on that stage, it was something I'll always remember. Whenever you can do something like that before a full crowd at Wembley Stadium, it's an awesome experience."
Unfortunately, that excitement was tempered by the way the game unfolded for the Falcons from that point on. Detroit followed Steven's scoring run with 22 unanswered points, capped by a Matt Prater field goal as time expired to send the Falcons to their fifth consecutive loss.
After the heartbreaking defeat, Atlanta got a much-needed reprieve from the gridiron with a Week 9 bye, which allowed each member of the team to recharge at the season's halfway point and prepare for a strong second half push toward the playoffs.
The Falcons opened up their second half with a pair of matchups against NFC South rivals and regained their footing with victories over Tampa Bay in Week 10 and Carolina in Week 11.
The win over Tampa broke Atlanta's five-game skid, which had dated back to right after the last time the two teams met. Like that Week 3 win over the Bucs, the Falcons utitlized their multi-dimensional rushing attack to keep Tampa Bay off balance. Steven had his best game of the season to that point statistically in the 27-17 Atlanta win, with 16 carries for 81 yards, including a touchdown for the second straight week.
The Falcons followed that up with a hard-fought win over the Panthers in Carolina, on which showed they'd learned something from their losses to New York and Detroit earlier in the season. Like in those games, Atlanta established an early lead (16-3) only to watch their oppoenent mount a second half rally to pull ahead. But this time, the Falcons never lost faith in themselves and rallied back, and a late field goal by Matt Bryant, followed by a stand from their defense willed them to the win.
It appeared as though the Falcons had conquered their demons in Carolina, but their good vibes came to a screeching halt along with their two-game winning streak in a Week 12 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
This time it was Atlanta that rallied from a deficit of 23-14 in the fourth quarter. A touchdown run by No. 39 early in the fourth pulled the Birds within two and when Matt Bryant kicked a field goal with 44 seconds left, they pulled ahead. But the Browns responded with a quick drive to reach field goal range and Billy Cundiff knocked through the game winning field goal as time expired to hand Atlanta a 26-24 defeat.
With the bitter taste of that defeat fresh in their mouths, the Falcons welcomed one of the NFC's best teams, the Arizona Cardinals, to the Georgia Dome in Week 13 and redeemed themselves on the strength of SJ's best performance of the year. No. 39 shredded one of the NFL's top defenses for 101 yards on 18 carries and the Falcons won 29-18 to get back into the playoff hunt in the NFC South. It marked No. 39's first 100-yard rushing day in red and black.
Atlanta couldn't sustain that momentum going into a Monday Night Football showdown with the Packers in frigid Green Bay and fell behind 31-7 at halftime, their lone touchdown a four-yard scoring run by SJ. But the Falcons played with pride and refused to quit. The rallied back to within one score of the lead with just over two minutes left, but couldn't finish the comeback and fell 43-37.
That defeat was followed by another tough one at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, but fortunately for the Falcons the other teams in their division did not fare much better, leaving them two wins from the playoffs with two games to play.
They got the first of those in a Week 16 rematch against the Saints, but it came at a price. Steven suffered a quad injury in the second quarter and did not return, but the Falcons went on to win 30-14 to set up a Week 17 winner take all against the Panthers for the NFC South crown.
But tests during the week leading up to the game showed the injury to be too severe for SJax to take part in the regular season finale. Without No. 39, the Atlanta offense sputtered against the Panthers, totaling just 63 yards on the ground in a 34-3 defeat.
SJ's 2014 campaign came to an abrupt end, but it was a bounce back season for No. 39 overall. After a disappointing first year in Atlanta when he played in just 12 games and rushed for 543 yards, he topped 700 yards rushing (707) in his second year with the Birds on 190 carries and scored six touchdowns for the second straight season.
In Week 13, coming off a tough loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Atlanta Falcons offense had the tough task in front of them as they faced off against one of the best rush defenses in the league, the Arizona Cardinals.
But thanks to the hard-nosed running No. 39, Atlanta showed they were not scared of the Arizona defense and ran the ball with tenacity.
SJ had a monster game, and it started on the second carry of the afternoon, which he took for 55 yards to set the tone for the rest of the game. SJax finished the game with 101 rushing yards on 18 carries and scored a touchdown.
In the process, he became the first running back to run for over 100 yards against the Cardinals defense in a span of 21 games dating back to early in the 2013 season. He also became the first Atlanta RB to run for over 100 yards since Michael Turner did so back on November 4, 2012.
“We're glad to get that out of the way," Steven told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the win.” Now, we want to start our own streak being effective runners, not only myself but the other guys in the room with me.”
SJ also leaped two spots on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with his 101-yard afternoon, passing both O.J. Simpson (11,236 yards) and Corey Dillon (11,241) to move into 17th on the list.
After the milestone day, SJ was modest about his performance and deflected credit to his offensive line for the creating holes to run through.
“Our offensive line did a really good job of creating some holes for not only myself, but for the other running backs," Steven said. "Whenever you can be effective running the ball, it allows the offense to be balanced and it allows for the play-calling to be creative and it keeps them honest."
He acknowledged that success in doing so was something he wanted to see more of in the final weeks of the season and told reporters that he believed establishing a consistently balanced offense could be a factor in taking the Falcons where they wanted to go in 2014 and beyond.
“We're going into the month of December where the games are going to be more challenging," he said. "We've set the bar now and now we need to do it consistently.”
BY THE NUMBERS
0 – Steven carried the ball 190 times and caught it 20 more and did not lose a single fumble, the third straight season he's goen without a turnover.
4 – The Falcons utilized a four-man rushing attack in 2014 with SJ39, Antone Smith, Devonta Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers all splitting carries, and despite averaging less than 13 carries per game, SJ went over 700 yards rushing.
6 – For the second consecutive season, Steven rushed for six touchdowns, bringing his career total up to 68.
55 – In Atlanta's Week 13 win over the Arizona Cardinals, SJax broke a way from the highly regarded Arizona defense for a 55-yard gain on the ground, his longest run of the season.
101 – No. 39 rushed for 101 yards in that Week 13 win over the Cardinals, the first time a Falcons running back had eclipsed 100 yards in a game since November 4, 2012.
707 – SJ finished the season with 707 rushing yards, putting him in the Top 25 in the NFL in rushing yards.
11,388 – Steven Jackson now has 11,388 career rushing yards, which ranks 17th on the NFL's all-time rushing list.
THEY SAID IT
Steven's teammates and coaches always appreciate the passion and effort that No. 39 brings to the field for the Falcons.
In his second season, SJax continued to impress upon them what he's all about and drew rave reviews as a result.
After coming off the bye week and defeating the Bucs, Matt Ryan talked about SJ's impact on the offense:
“I thought we ran the football really effectively today, I thought our offensive line did a nice job and I thought Steven Jackson played extremely physically," the quarterback said. "He went out there, running between the tackles and did a great job for us. Hats off to him, I thought he played really well, and hats off to our offensive line."
SJ's 55-yard run early in the Week 13 game against Arizona set the tone for the Falcons' win and afterward coach Mike Smith noted the importance of that big play:
“We've been kind of one off, in terms of our run game. When you watch the tape, we feel like we're one off here, we're one off there," Smith said. "This group has got five or six games underneath their belt, and they did a very good job blocking for Steven. It was good to see Steven create that explosive play.”
As the team prepared to play in Green Bay on Monday night in Week 14, Matt Ryan reiterated the importance of the rushing attack and the balance it creates to the success of our offense:
"I think running the football for us has been key. I think one of the things that’s really benefitted us is that we’ve had the same five guys up front for the last five weeks. I think the continuity on the offensive line those guys starting to come together and play with an edge, and then our running backs, playing physical and running behind those guys up front. We’re a better offense when we’re balanced, and that’s important for us as we move forward."
IN HIS OWN WORDS
After another trying season in Atlanta, the Falcons will begin a new era in 2015 with a new head coach, and as he reflected on the season in his most recent blog entry "Older, Wiser, Stronger," SJ couldn't help but feel some excitement for what's next in the ATL.
"We're all very much looking forward to a new beginning with a new head coach in Atlanta. I'm excited to go out and give the Atlanta fanbase and the Falcons front office exactly what they expected of me when I came here," Steven says. "There are great things on the horizon and within reach for me personally and as part of the Falcons, and I'm looking forward to achieving our goals together."