The Atlanta Falcons held their first organized team activities of the offseason this week, and Steven Jackson left the squad’s facilities in Flowery Branch, Ga. excited about his team’s outlook for the season ahead.
As SJ39 surveyed the practice field this week, he saw plenty of new faces —additions on the offensive line, coaching staff and in the backfield— which he believes have the Falcons poised for a turnaround.
“I think the adjustments we made, the guys we added up front, the addition of offensive line coach Mike Tice and my ability to do what I can and stay healthy – I think we’ll be quite all right,” Steven said.
S-Jax, one of many Falcons limited by injury last season, will be a key part of that equation.
The injury plagued 2013 season took its biggest toll on the offense, as receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones joined Steven among the walking wounded throughout the season, and the Falcons offense struggled in their stead. SJ knows Atlanta can’t afford a similar scenario this season, which is why, as he heads into his 11th professional season, No. 39 spent much of the offseason preparing himself physically for the grind that lies ahead.
“We’re talking about Year 11 and right now, the way that the trend is going for the running backs, that’s a long time,” he said. “So I want to make sure that not only do I stay mentally sharp, I stay physically sharp because year in and year out, you have young guys coming in and everybody wants to be the starting running back.”
Though the team’s top runner saw his eight-season streak with 1,000-plus yards on the ground come to an end, Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wasn’t discouraged by the rough year. Koetter knows that SJ39 is still one of the league’s elite backs and plans to use him like it in 2014.
“Steven Jackson is a freak of nature,” Koetter said. “Because we didn’t run well, everybody blames the running back first. Trust me, as somebody who has studied it a lot, it’s not always the running back’s fault when you don’t run the ball well. He always keeps himself in great shape. I haven’t been around a whole lot of guys who do a better job of taking care of their body and staying in shape.”
Though SJ39 is the incumbent, the Falcons did spend a fourth-round pick to add Florida State standout Devonta Freeman, one of the many talented running backs in this year’s draft class. As one of the team’s veteran leaders, SJ is looking at Freeman’s arrival as a both a source of motivation and an opportunity to teach.
“I love it. It feeds me,” Jackson said of competition. “I think we learn a lot from each other. It’s an honest tradeoff. Those young guys learn from, you know, my experience over the years — what I can help them on the field, what I can convey to them that a coach possibly may not be able to understand and see it through their eyes.”
Freeman was an integral part of FSU’s 2013 National Championship run, and he joins Atlanta after tallying 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns while splitting time with several other backs for the Seminoles. No. 39 believes the quick-but-powerful Freeman will bring something special to the Atlanta backfield.
“Very humble kid,” Steven said of Freeman. “In his humbleness, you can see he’s eager and ready to go. [He’s] very shifty, able to run inside and outside. Everything that you read about him in the stat sheet and his bio is true. And I’ve just been impressed with him these last two days that I’ve been with him.”
The Falcons also used their first-round pick to shore up their offense, particularly the offensive line, as they selcted Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews No. 6 overall. Steven was thrilled to see Atlanta make that selection, as many believe the NFL legacy Matthews will contribute from Day 1.
I love this pick ! Enjoy tonight Jake Matthews, congrats, this fall we have work to do!
— Steven Jackson (@sj39) May 9, 2014
Mathews and Freeman highlight an excellent rookie crop, and SJ is excited about the new wave of young players set to join the squad. He told reporters that the youthful presence will have great impact in the running backs room and beyond.
“They bring that edge to me to make sure that I stay sharp and that I don’t get complacent. It’s a fair tradeoff,” he said. “And our room, as a core, I think we all get along. I think we all work together well. And it’s going to be great going into the season.”