The 2013 season hasn’t gone as expected for the Atlanta Falcons and adversity continued to pour down on Atlanta on Sunday in Tampa Bay.
The Falcons lost their fourth straight game and fell to the bottom of the NFC South with a 41-28 loss to the Buccaneers. Afterward, Steven Jackson lamented the defeat and explained why he felt Atlanta fell short in Tampa.
“We didn’t make the big play when we needed it; we gave up the big play,” he said. “Tampa Bay came out and executed their game plan. All three phases, they outplayed us.”
As Steven has learned over the course of his career, overcoming adversity like that which the Falcons are facing this season starts with making the most of your opportunities.
In the early going Sunday, Steven looked strong and determined to do just that.
The Atlanta defense forced a punt less than two minutes into the game, leaving SJ39 and the Falcons offense with an early chance to set the tempo for the contest.
They set up shop at their own 12-yard line and went right at the Tampa defense, sending S-Jax to work on the first play of the game. As the offensive line pulled to the right, SJ went left, then cut back into a vacated hole. He was met at the second level by two defenders and ran through one, breaking into the open field for a gain of 15 before the second defender grabbed his foot and tripped him up.
The success of that first play encouraged the Falcons to go right back to Steven on the next play on a run up the middle. He ducked one defender and again made it to the second level, where it took five Buccaneers players to wrestle him down after a gain of seven.
Two plays later, S-Jax caught a screen pass in the flat, waited for some blocks to develop and was able to weave through the Tampa defense to gain 12 yards and a first down that set the Falcons up with a first down at the Tampa Bay 35.
But the protection that had helped SJ gain so much yardage broke down in front of quarterback Matt Ryan over the next two plays allowing Tampa to sack him for losses of four and 10 yards, which pushed the Falcons out of field goal range and halted the drive, forcing Atlanta to punt. The Buccaneers offense orchestrated a seven-minute drive on their next possession, resulting in a field goal.
Down 3-0, Atlanta knew they needed to put together a solid drive to stay competitive and they went right back to SJ39 to set the tone. On 2nd & 1 from the Atlanta 29, S-Jax caught another screen pass from Ryan and was again able to elude defenders for another 12-yard gain. SJ followed that with a three-yard run to end the quarter with three carries for 25 yards and two catches for 24 yards. His hard work on catches and runs accounted for 47 of the 77 total yards the Falcons’ offense accumulated in the first quarter.
But as the second quarter began, the Falcons reversed course Steven was only on the field for two more plays — both passes — and after two penalties on Tampa helped Atlanta reach the red zone for the first time, the drive stalled. The Falcons settled for a field goal on that drive, tying the game at 3-3.
“We have got to continue to work, we’ve got to remain positive, and we have to make the corrections,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said after the game. “We have to make sure that we have the guys that are going to give us the best opportunity to win.”
Tampa Bay scored a touchdown on the next drive and, sensing a chance to build momentum, Bucs coach Greg Schiano called for a surprise onside kick, which Tampa Bay recovered. The Falcons’ defense stepped up and forced a turnover on downs on the ensuing drive. But on the first play of Atlanta’s next possession, Ryan got pressured from behind, forcing an errant throw that was intercepted by Bucs linebacker Mason Foster and returned for a touchdown that gave the Bucs a 17-3 lead.
Though the situation was beginning to look dire, with plenty of time left in the half and possession to come their way at the beginning of the second half, the Falcons knew they needed to just get something going on their ensuing drive.
Steven continued to grind, picking up seven yards on first down and another three on second down, which gave Atlanta a fresh set of downs. But Atlanta couldn’t build much momentum as the Bucs recovered a fumble a few plays later to end the Falcons’ possession. Tampa Bay scored again shortly after that turnover to take a 24-3 lead and though the Falcons managed to get into field goal range at the end of the half, they still trailed 24-6 at the break.
“We‘re capable of getting the job done. We’re able to move the ball; we just need to be consistent,” Ryan said. “So, I think you have to find ways to breed confidence when things aren’t going your way.”
With a deficit so big, the Falcons were forced into passing situations. This left Steven on the sidelines for most of the second half and after accounting for 59 yards on five carries and two catches in the first half, SJ was not targeted in the passing game and ran just six times for six yards over the final two quarters.
Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com noted afterward how those numbers strayed from the plan Atlanta originally had in place.
“Once the Falcons got behind by 21 points late in the second quarter, they had to abandon the running game once again. Jackson finished with 41 yards on 11 carries — not exactly what you would call “working your workhorse,” as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter vowed to do.”
STEVEN OFFERS SUPPORT
The Falcons were without one of their other veteran running backs on Sunday, as Jason Snelling was away from the team dealing with a personal matter following an arrest for marijuana possession.
While acknowledging after the game that Snelling made a mistake, Steven offered support to his teammate and hoped to see him back in the locker room soon.
“I think the biggest thing when guys make a mistake, you tend to isolate yourself,” Jackson explained. “And I think that’s probably the worst thing you can do. You need to be around your brothers. You need to be around your teammates for support to get through this and weather the storm. It’s obviously something you don’t want to be associated with, but we all make mistakes and have to help each other get through it.”
It’s a short week for the Falcons as they get set to host the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night to kick off Week 12 of the NFL season.
The teams played a closely contested game in Week 1 at the Superdome in New Orleans that was won 23-17 by the Saints, so Atlanta will be looking for some payback at home. Steven carried 11 times for 77 yards and caught five passes for 45 yards in the Week 1 loss.
Kickoff of the rematch from the Georgia Dome is scheduled for 8:25 p.m. Thursday night and the game can be seen on NFL Network.