Last offseason, after parting ways with Michael Turner, the Falcons thought the aging Steven Jackson was the answer at running back.
Was he? It's hard to tell with a line that struggled as much as Atlanta's. Jackson graded out at (+2.8) overall in the PFF grades, or slightly above average. Rodgers beat out the veteran with what he brought to the table as a receiver (+6.2 as a pass-catcher). And through all of this, the Falcons fielded the worst rushing attack in the NFL.
Steven Jackson: 157 carries, 543 yds rushing, 6 TDs, 33 recs, 191 yds receiving, 1 TD
Jacquizz Rodgers: 96 carries, 332 yds rushing, 2 TDs, 52 recs, 341 yds receiving, 2 TDs
Jason Snelling: 44 carries, 164 yds rushing, 1 TD, 29 recs, 216 yds receiving, 3 TDs
Antone Smith: 5 carries, 145 yds rushing, 2 TDs
Josh Vaughn: 1 carry, 1 rec
Rodgers seemed by and large a more effective weapon, even if his offensive line didn't do any favors. Still, this was and could continue to be a deep group. Snelling made his plays. Smith finished the season averaging 29 yards per carry and excelled as a gunner on special teams. Vaughn didn't do much, but it will be interesting to see if he sticks around for another year.
Still, no matter which way you cut it up, the running game was a far cry from the hey-day of "Turner the Burner."
Jackson, of course, missed roughly five games due to a hamstring injury he suffered against the Rams. That set him back from the get go and made the final numbers even more disappointing than what they would have been. But at the same time, these are the sorts of risks you take when you sign a 30 year-old back with the kind of miles a guy like S-Jax has already logged.
This was a hard one. The Falcons wound up with the worst-ranked rushing attack in the NFL last season, so the bright spots were few and far between. But if I had to pick (I do), it would be the overtime win over Buffalo.
Jackson logged a season-high 84 yards rushing on 23 carries plus two scores. Smith rumbled in for a 38-yard score of his own (his only carry of the game). Finally, we were seeing Atlanta running backs break through to the second level and (gasp) turn those opportunities into long gains. Most of all, the Falcons were able to grind their way down into the end zone in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime and win their third game of the season.
Loss to the Cardinals: 14 carries for 27 yards, 13 of those coming on a Matt Ryan scramble. An utter non-factor. *puking noises*
Smith scampering for a 50-yard touchdown against the Buccaneers was almost my pick, even though it came at the end of a horrible game. But I'll have to go with S-Jax dropping the truck stick on Josh Wilson against the Redskins:
*plays "Get Back" by Ludacris*
Jackson dropping the potential game-winning pass against the Saints. Hands down. (Credit Matt for jogging my memory).
Years Under Contract
Jackson: 2014 ($3M) and 2015 ($3.75M)
Rodgers: 2014 ($1.389M)
Snelling: 2014 ($1.375M)
Smith: 2014 ($730,000)
Vaughn: 2014 ($645,000)
With four guys in the final year of their contract and Jackson essentially in his last year with the Falcons, considering the way his deal was set up, this isn't the year we'll see much change at the running back position. The biggest key for the team will be to rebuild the O-line and find some capable right-side linemen to open up some holes for the strong-side ground attack.
If anyone does go, perhaps it is Vaughn if the team wants to kick the tires on another young, unproven player. But I wouldn't bet on the Falcons carrying five backs again.
Final Grade: C+
It's hard for me to lay so much blame on these guys when they had nowhere to run once the ball was snapped. Rodgers is still an excellent receiving weapon, Snelling remains a great situational option and Smith flashed some real explosiveness towards the tail end of the season.
If Jackson can stay healthy, I see no reason why this stable of backs couldn't carry the load in 2014 behind a (hopefully) improved offensive line.