The Atlanta Falcons came off their bye week in need of a turnaround after dropping their last five games, and behind a huge day from Steven Jackson, the Dirty Birds did just that.
Atlanta came away from their week off with a renewed sense of energy and focus, and it showed. SJ39 looked as good as he has all year, tallying a season-high 81 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries in his team's 27-17 road victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Steven punched in the game's first touchdown, and left Tampa glad that his squad was able to hold onto that lead—something they struggled with mightily during their five-game skid.
"That felt good because a couple of weeks ago, we weren't able to keep our leverage and get the win," Steven said. "For us to be able to close out the game and get the win on the road, that was big for us."
The Buccaneers put the Falcons behind early with a long opening drive that soaked up more than half of the first quarter. Tampa pushed deep into Atlanta territory, but was stymied outside the red zone and had to settle for a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. Despite falling behind, Atlanta stuck to their game plan and the offense got off on the right foot by committing to the run right away.
On Atlanta's very first offensive play, SJ ran up the middle and made it all the way to the secondary as he picked up nine yards. The carry was the start of a big day for the Falcons and their running game.
On the next play, SJ picked up eight yards with a run to the left side for an Atlanta first down. He got a third straight carry on 1st & 10 from the 39, but was bottled up at the line of scrimmage. On 2nd down, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan connected with reciever Roddy White for a nine-yard gain setting up third-and-short, and No. 39 picked up the first down on a four-yard run that pushed the Falcons across midfield.
From there, Ryan went to the air and connected with White on back-to-back plays for gains of 11 and 21, which pushed the Falcons into the red zone. On 1st-and-10 from the 16, Atlanta went back to the ground and Steven picked up six yards on a first down carry. Ryan missed on his next two passes, but on the second of those the Buccaneers were whistled for pass interference in the end zone, placing the Falcons on the doorstep of the end zone.
After a play action attempt to Levine Toilolo fell incomplete, Atlanta put the ball back in SJ39's hands on second down and he juked past a tackler in the backfield and barreled into the end zone to give Atlanta a 7-3 lead with 56 seconds left in the first quarter. The entire drive was a standout performance by the Atlanta offensive front, which has struggled due to injury this season, and No. 39 thanked the big guys up front after the game.
"I thought the offensive line did a really good job out there," SJ said. "The three young offensive lineman that we have in the starting lineup along with the two veterans, I think they've got a really good feel for each other. They created some movement for me and we were able to get some lanes so that I could get downhill."
After the Falcons defense stepped up to force a Buccaneers early in the second quarter, the Atlanta offense put together another scoring drive led by contributions from all four members of their backfield.
SJ, Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Antone Smith all touched the ball on the 12-play, 42-yard drive. Steven didn't get a carry, but was the recipient of back-to-back passes by Ryan. The first, a seven-yard gain over the middle, was negated by a holding call, but Ryan went back to the well on 1st-and-20 and No. 39 gained seven of those yards back on a swing pass to the left.
The Falcons moved methodically down the field from there, aided by short gains and penalties against the Bucs. Then, shortly after they crossed midfield, Ryan found wide receiver Julio Jones for a 39-yard gain on third down to put Atlanta in scoring position. The Falcons ended the 12-play drive with a Matt Bryant field goal to give them a 10-3 lead.
The Falcons defense then got another stop, but the Bucs answered by forcing Atlanta into a quick three-and-out and their first fruitless possession of the game. On the ensuing drive, Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown drove Tampa Bay down the field quickly with consecutive completions to big targets Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.
Then, with less than a minute remaining in the half, McCown connected with his rookie wideout Evans for a 22-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 10-10.
Though Atlanta recieved the ball back with less than 46 seconds left, they got a huge kick return from Devin Hester that allowed Ryan to engineer a quick drive to retake the lead. Hester's return set the Falcons up at their own 42 and after a short pass to Rodgers, Ryan hit Jones for a 22-yard gain to the Tampa 33 and the Falcons called their final timeout of the half with 17 seconds left. Ryan then passed to Rodgers for an eight-yard gain and spiked the ball with one-second remaining, allowing Bryant to kick a 43-yard field goal that gave Atlanta a 13-10 halftime lead.
The Falcons got the ball again to begin the second half and started the third quarter the same way they'd begun the first, with a steady diet of SJ39. Steven ripped off a six-yard run up the middle on first down. Then carried for one-yard on 2nd-and-4.
After a third down conversion on a pass to Jones, Ryan hit SJ with another screen pass that he took for a seven-yard gain. Steven was then relieved by Smith, hwo carried twice as the Falcons marched into field goal range and Bryant nailed a 44-yard field goal to make it 16-10. After the game, Ryan noted that the balance that their committment to the running game brought allowed Atlanta to click on all cylinders in Sunday's game.
"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."
Down six points, the Buccaneers answered with a drive into ATL territory, but rookie running back Charles Sims fumbled on the 39-yard line and second-year defensive lineman Stansly Maponga jumped on it for Atlanta.
But despite a seven-yard run from No. 39 to start the drive, the Falcons couldn't make anything happen off the turnover and were forced to punt. The momentum swung back in favor of the Bucs on the punt when return man Marcus Thigpen took it back 53 yards to give Tampa Bay solid field position.
The Bucs began the drive already in field goal range at the Atlanta 34 with 3:22 left in the third and by the end of the quarter had marched into the red zone. On the second play of the fourth quarter, the Bucs found the end zone, as McCown connected with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins for a one-yard score to give Tampa a 17-16 lead.
Despite being down in the fourth quarter, the Falcons did not panic and continued to attack the Buccaneers defense with balance.
Their ensuing drive started with good field position at their own 35 after another solid return by Hester and a 20-yard completing from Ryan to Jones put the Falcons in Bucs territory in an instant. Runs by Ryan and Freeman moved the chains, and after consecutive misses to Harry Douglas, Ryan found Jones for a third down conversion to the 20.
The Falcons then gave Steven his first and only touch of the drive and he rushed for five yards. That scamper helped set up a Ryan-Roddy White five-yard touchdown connection that put Atlanta in front 22-17. Falcons coach Mike Smith then opted to try and make the five-point lead a seven-point lead and Ryan connected with Douglas for the two-point conversion to make it 24-17 in favor of Atlanta. After the game, Ryan talked about how being down in the fourth quarter did not phase the team one bit.
"In the fourth quarter, we go down by one," Ryan said, "but the response drive – the going out there, running the football effectively, throwing the football effectively and then ultimately being opportunistic and being able to punch that in and then get the two-point conversion on top of that, I think those are the drives you have to make in order to win football games and I think it was a good step for us in the right direction."
Then, just like their offense, the Falcons defense came up big and forced a three-and-out from Tampa thanks to an Osi Umenyiora sack on third down. This allowed the Atlanta offense to extend their late advantage.
With 7:03 left in the game, SJ ran up the middle for a huge gain of 27 yards on first down. SJ's run of 27 yards was the longest of the game for either team, and it set up a Matt Bryant field goal to give Atlanta a 27-17 lead with 4:10 left in the game. Afterward Head coach Mike Smith commended SJ39's play and how it led Atlanta to win the battle at the line of scrimmage.
"I thought Steven came out right from the beginning, and I think you saw how we started the game and what we tried to get accomplished," Smith said. "You've got to win the line of scrimmage in the NFL, and I thought that we did that today."
On the final two Buccaneers' drives, McCown was intercepted twice: once by Dwight Lowery in the red zone and then by Kemal Ishmael to end Tampa Bay's chances with 31 seconds left in the game.
The defensive plays wrapped up a complete performance by the Falcons in all three phases and afterward SJ was proud of the way all of his teammates stepped up to snap their five game losing skid.
"That is the one thing that is special about the game of football: it takes all 53 men, all three units. The defense really played stellar. They got off the field when they needed to. Hats off to Tampa Bay, they did a really good job of putting themselves back in the game. I thought we responded well as a team."
The Falcons (3-6) are again away from the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome next week as they will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina to take on the divisional rival Carolina Panthers (3-6-1).
Though they have lost six games this season, the Falcons are currently the only NFC South team that is undefeated in the division at 3-0. Atlanta also now sits just one game behind the New Orleans Saints (4-5), who lost on Sunday, for first place in the division.
Sunday's game in Charlotte will be the first meeting between the divisional rivals this season and Steven expects it to be a battle.
"It'll be a tough one; Carolina has a physical team and defense," he said. "We are going to get some film study in and prepare for another tough one."
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET and the game will be broad cast on FOX.
- Jackson rushed for season-high 81 yards, TD (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 9, 2014)
- Short takes: A win, a running game and a chance (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 9, 2014)
- Falcons vs. Bucs Recap: Atlanta ends five-game skid with 27-17 win over Tampa Bay (The Falcoholic, November 9, 2014)
- WHAT THEY SAID: FALCONS AT BUCCANEERS (AtlantaFalcons.com, November 10, 2014)
- TRANSCRIPTS: SMITH, RYAN PRESS CONFERENCES (AtlantaFalcons.com, November 9, 2014)
- GAME NOTEBOOK: FALCONS AT BUCCANEERS (AtlantaFalcons.com, November 9, 2014)