Steven Jackson prides himself on being a tone setter for his team and on Sunday afternoon against the NFC's top team, SJ39 quickly established a climate for success at the Georgia Dome.
On his second carry of the game against the vaunted rushing defense of the Arizona Cardinals, Steven broke out into the open field and galloped for 55 yards to set up Atlanta's first score.
It was the opening salvo of a 101-yard rushing day for No. 39, his first in a Falcons uniform, as he helped lead the way to a 29-18 victory over the NFC-leading Cards that maintained Atlanta's spot atop the NFC South. Afterward, SJ talked about what it meant to set the tone.
"All week we talked about getting off to a fast start and closing the game out in the fourth quarter," SJ said. "It was imperative because the Arizona Cardinals presented a difficult challenge. They have a very good defense."
Indeed, Arizona entered Sunday's game as one of the NFL's top-ranked defenses, particularly against the run, stifling opposing ground attacks to less that 85 yards per game. Steven eclipsed that mark on his own on Sunday and in the process became the first back to run for over 100 yards against the Cardinals in 21 games, since Frank Gore did so on October 13 of last season.
Additionally, SJ39 became the first Atlanta RB to run for over 100 yards since Michael Turner did so way back on November 4, 2012, breaking a streak of 35 games for the Falcons without a 100-yard rusher.
"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."
Steven's 101-yard day was part of a larger 142-yard rushing effort by the Falcons, which also marked the biggest rushing day for any team against the Cardinals' third-ranked rushing defense this season.
After the game, coach Mike Smith noted that the performance by the ground attack was an example of the offensive line and the running back group coming together at the right time to create some great opportunities, and it was something he'd seen coming in recent weeks.
"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."
That explosive play happened on just the fourth play of the day from scrimmage.
After losing in heartbreaking fashion to the Cleveland Browns 26-24 last week, the Falcons came out of their preparation for the Cardinals, the NFC's Number 1 seed, with the intention of getting off to a fast start in a game they knew would be a challenge, particularly if they fell behind.
After winning the toss and electing to receive, the Falcons came out with a balanced attack. Quarterback Matt Ryan fired incomplete for Devin Hester on first down, then turned to hand off to Steven on 2nd-and-10 for a six-yard gain. On 3rd-and-4, Ryan connected with Jones for a gain to the 44. It was from there that SJ broke out with the biggest play of the day.
On 1st-and-10, No. 39 took a handoff running right and got a huge hole between the tackle and guard that sprung him to the second level. There, he got another block downfield by Devin Hester and Steven made both safety Rashad Johnson and cornerback Antonio Cromartie miss as he took off toward the end zone.
Cromartie and Jerruad Powers managed to run stride for stride with SJ39 and Cromartie eventually wrestled him down just short of the goal line, but the tone for the day had already been set.
"You see him take off and it was huge. When you're running the ball against a really good team, you know there are going to be some of those one and two yard gains. I thought we stuck with it today knowing that if we just keep grinding it out, one or two of those are going to pop out the back end. It popped out early. That was huge. From a confidence standpoint, just going out there and really feeling good about playing… the guys bought into that."
With that big run, Steven also leaped two spots on the NFL's all-time rushing list, passing both O.J. Simpson (11,236 yards) and Corey Dillon (11,241) to take sole possession of 17th on the list.
SJ was denied his chance at paydirt two plays later when he was tripped up short, and it took the Falcons all four downs to get into the end zone, but they finally did on a strike from Ryan to tight end Levine Toilolo on 4th-and-1 to give Atlanta an early 7-0 lead.
The Falcons nearly doubled that lead after their defense forced Arizona into a quick three-and-out. On the punt return that followed, Hester broke loose and appeared to score a touchdown that would've made it 13-0. However, the returner was whistled for a questionable facemask penalty on the punter who was attempting to haul Hester down by his own facemask. The penalty and a subsequent unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a livid coach Mike Smith backed Atlanta up to the Arizona 32 and eventually the Falcons had to settle for a chip shot field goal that made it 10-0.
Just over two minutes later, Atlanta was able to take a stranglehold of the game thanks to the ball-hawking play of the defense.
Arizona started with the ball on their own 20 with 8:13 left in the first quarter and soon Moved the chains for the first time when cornerback Josh Wilson was whistled for a defensive holding penalty on 3rd-and-8. But one play later, Arizona's drive came to a screeching halt when a Drew Stanton passed intended for Jaron Brown tipped off the receiver's hands and was intercepted by Dwight Lowery, who then returned it 21 yards to the Cardinals 32-yard-line. The interception was the sixth by the Atlanta defense in the last three weeks.
The Falcons wasted little time putting points on the board. After SJ was stopped on first down for no gain, Ryan opened up the passing game with a deep ball to receiver Julio Jones, who hauled in and got to the end zone for a touchdown to give the Falcons a 17-0 lead. The fast start was a huge momentum boost for the Falcons, one they needed according to coach Smith.
"We started very fast. We talked about coming out of the locker room, and what we needed to get done and what we needed to get accomplished, and we were able to do it," he said. "They're a very good football team. Their record indicates it; they're a very good defense, and we were able to move the football today."
After Atlanta's fast start put them up 17-0 and had them deep in Arizona territory for a fourth time, at the Cardinals 30 to start the second quarter, momentum quickly swung back in favor of Arizona early in the second.
On the second play of the quarter, Ryan's pass intended for Jones was intercepted by Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson, who returned it for an 88-yard touchdown to bring Arizona back within striking distance, down just 17-7 despite the Atlanta's dominance of the game to that point.
The Falcons started their next drive with a four-yard run by SJ39, but the drive stalled out soon after, forcing Matt Bosher's first punt of the afternoon. Arizona used the momentum swing to drive into Atlanta territory for the first time, but the opportunistic Falcons defense came up big again.
Shortly after the Cardinals had crossed midfield, Stanton found receiver Michael Floyd across the middle for 13 yards to the 31, but there waiting was safety William Moore and he punched the ball out Floyd's hands causing a fumble. Desmond Trufant recovered the loose ball, halting Arizona's momentum.
The Falcons were eventually forced to punt after three straight negative plays left them in 3rd-and-25, and Harry Douglas picked up just 19 on third down. Arizona made something of the subsequent opportunity and trekked 61 yards in just five plays, but a holding penalty on 1st-and 10 from the Atlanta 23 set the back and the Falcons defense forced incompletions on second and third down so that Arizona had to settle for three to make it 17-10.
After seeing their lead cut to just one possession, the Falcons were quick to answer.
Ryan put together a fantastic two minute drill in which he used all his weapons in the passing game to get the ball down to Arizona's five-yard line. Finally, with three seconds left in the half, Bryant knocked through a 23-yard field goal to put the Falcons back up 20-10.
After Arizona's first drive of the second half stalled, the Falcons took possession at their own 12-yard line and gave the Cardinals a heavy dosage of SJ39, which kept Arizona honest and opened things up a passing attack that was clicking with Ryan targeting Jones, Douglas and Toilolo. Steven carried four times and picked up 14 yards on the ground while Ryan completed four passes for 71 yards, including a big 41-yarder to Jones.
"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."
After an eight-yard pass play to Toilolo put Atlanta in the red zone, No. 39 got three consecutive handoffs and picked up a total of 11 yards down to the three-yard-line, setting up third and goal from there. Ryan targeted Douglas on the next play, but the pass was just a bit out of the receiver's reach and fell incomplete. With 6:17 left in the quarter, Bryant kicked another field goal to increase the Falcons lead to 23-10.
The Atlanta defense stepped up with another stop on the subsequent Cardinals possession and handed the ball back to the offense late in the fourth, at which points the Falcons began to wind out the clock. Another balanced drive saw SJ tack on seven yards to his total on a pair of carries while Atlanta marched into field goal range. Bryant capped the five-minute possession with a 45-yard field goal to make the score 26-10 with 8:57 left in the game.
After the two teams traded quick three-and-outs, the Cardinals took possession and drove into Falcons territory, hoping to strike quickly and keep themselves alive. But shortly after Arizona crossed midfield, their chances of a comeback were crossed off by the Atlanta defense as a pass by Stanton sailed out of the reach of Floyd and into the hands of Josh Wilson for Atlanta's second interception of the game and seventh in the last three weeks.
The Falcons used the change of possession to kill more clock. On the subsequent drive, they ran the ball six times between SJ and Devonta Freeman. Big first down pick ups by Douglas and Jones on passes from Ryan helped Atlanta keep the clock running.
SJ followed those two big gains with runs of seven and two yards to close in on 100, but a pass intended for fullback Patrick DiMarco on third down fell incomplete, forcing Bryant and the field goal unit onto the field. Bryant split the uprights with a 38 yarder, but the Cardinals jumped offsides on the try, and Atlanta accepted the penalty, which gave them a first down, and an opportunity to take some more time off the clock.
No. 39 carried for three yards on first down to get to 97 and then ran for four more on second down to breakthrough the 100-yard threshold.
"Just another day at the office," SJ said of the 100-yard effort afterward. "It's something that I wanted, but they didn't bring me here for one. I need to be more consistent, and that's what I strive to do."
After an Arizona timeout, Freeman was stuffed on third-and-short, and Bryant came on to knock through a 28-yard field goal to put the Falcons up 29-10.
Arizona managed a late touchdown drive and the two-point conversion to pull within 11, but the Falcons recovered the onside kick and knelt out the clock on their fifth win of the season.
Afterward, Steven noted that the Falcons have now set a standard for themselves that they must work to meet on a weekly basis if they hope to head to the playoffs in a month.
"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."
Atlanta's first challenge of December might be its toughest as they head back out on the road next week to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field to take on the NFL's hottest team, the Green Bay Packers next Monday night.
Like the Falcons (5-7), the Packers (9-3) will enter the Week 14 battle coming off one of their best wins of the season, a 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots at Lambeau on Sunday. The win moved the Pack to a perfect 6-0 on their home turf and they'll be looking to make it 7-0 against Atlanta on Monday Night Football.
Though their record isn't as strong as that of Green Bay, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is encouraged by the fact that Atlanta seems to be playing its best ball coming down the stretch and he believes if the Falcons keep working they can make that translate into a great month.
"This is what it is like in December when you are in the mix. Obviously, this year is shaking out differently than any other that I've been a part of. It doesn't make a difference," he said. "We are where we are. We are right in the mix. From my experience, being here seven years now, this is what November/December football is. It's going to be tough, you are going to go against good football teams."
The next chance for the Falcons to rise up the NFC comes next Monday night with kickoff from Lambeau Field scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN.
- Jackson ends 35-game rushing drought for Falcons (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 1, 2014)
- Steven Jackson keeps Falcons in the running (ESPN, Dec. 1, 2014)
- Falcons throttle Cardinals in a stunner (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 1, 2014)
- What they said: Falcons vs. Cardinals (AtlantaFalcons.com, Dec, 1, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Conference (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 30, 2014)
- Report Card: Jones to Peterson, How you like me now? (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 30, 2014)
- Falcons win clash of first place teams, routing Arizona (Fox Sports South, Nov. 30, 2014)
- Upon Further Review: Falcons vs. Cardinals (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 30, 2014)
- Falcons 29, Cardinals 18 (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 30, 2014)
- Press Pass: Confident Locker Room After Win (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 30, 2014)
- What the Falcons Had to Say (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 30, 2014)
- Falcons vs. Cardinals Recap: Atlanta remains in first place in NFC South with 29-18 win over Arizona (The Falcoholic, Nov. 30, 2014)