Check the Film: What can Steven Jackson add to the Patriots offense?
Does Steven Jackson still have something left in the tank? Photo via Getty Images
After each Patriots game, I normally go back over the game film and post my observations. This week, however, I've decided to mix it up. Instead of doing a film review of Sunday's game, which didn't really teach us much other than that the Patriots are far superior to the Titans, I went over some Atlanta Falcons film from last season. The reason was to gauge how newly signed Patriots running back Steven Jackson looked in his last NFL action. The former Rams superstar posted lackluster stats in his two year run with the Falcons, prompting many to posit that his 2,743 carry workload over 11 season sapped him of his effectiveness. A closer look (I rewatched Atlanta's Week 1 win over the Saints, Week 5 loss to the Giants and Week 10 win over the Bucs) reveals a back who may have lost a step, but still could help the Patriots in the right role.
As a runner, Jackson's physical, no-nonsense style likely appealed to a Patriots team looking to establish a power running game. He is every bit of the 240 pounds he's listed at and, predictably for a back that size, is at his best when running between the tackles with authority. Jackson runs with great forward lean and is a load to bring down once he gets momentum going. However, much like LeGarrette Blount, he doesn't have special acceleration and needs a little space to get going. If given good blocking and able to get a head of steam going downhill, he becomes an absolute load to bring down. There were plenty of plays throughout the three games I watched that were reminiscent of the player who dominated for nearly a decade in St. Louis.
That initial reliance on his blocking was a major part of his problem in Atlanta, where his line deteriorated around him. The Falcons had one of the worst offensive lines in football last year, and their failure to create rushing lanes contributed to Jackson's lackluster production. Far too often, Jackson was either forced to cut back or take on contact behind the line of scrimmage. All three games I watched were littered with plays that had little to no chance of success, regardless of who was carrying the ball.
The stats bear witness to this as well. The popular narrative became that Jackson was washed up due to his plodding 3.7 yards per carry average, but younger, more athletic backs Devonta Freeman (3.8 ypc) and Jacquizz Rodgers (3.7 ypc) also struggled to find consistent gains behind that line.
While Jackson didn't look washed up on tape, the poor blocking up front helped to highlight his biggest weakness, which is a lack of dynamic lateral quickness. Even in his prime, Jackson didn't have elite quickness or breakaway speed, and he naturally didn't look as spry during his age 31 season than he did during his Rams heyday. The Falcons seemed to realize this, as they rarely attempted to run Jackson outside the tackles.
While Jackson isn't much of a big play threat, his decisive, downhill style leads to plenty of yards after contact. Even in a lackluster statistical season, Jackson's 2.69 yards per carry after contact was fifth in the league according to PFF, trailing only Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, Eddie Lacy and Jeremy Hill. He plays with great balance and forward lean, which almost always results in two yards after contact. That ability to finish runs with authority will be welcome in Foxborough, as neither Brandon Bolden nor James White can come close to matching the power he brings to the table.
That power also manifested itself in plenty of plays on which Jackson looked far better than the stat sheet would indicate, such as this impressive 3 yard run from overtime in the Falcons week one win over the Saints. Needless to say, he earned every one of his 707 rushing yards last year.
Jackson's power also gives them a capable option in short yardage and on the goal-line, which is important because recent call-up Joey Iosefa is the only other back on the roster whose skill-set is suited to those situations. While his blocking essentially submarined his numbers, Jackson's ability to churn out more yards than the blocking afforded him showed up on numerous occasions on film. That ability to earn those tough three and four yard gains won't necessarily "wow" someone, but will bring value to an offense built to stay out of long-yardage situations and string together long drives. The Patriots didn't sign Jackson to be a home run hitter; they signed him to get four tough yards up the middle when they need them. Judging from his 2014 film, Jackson is still plenty capable of that.
It's long been an overlooked strength to his game, but Jackson's ability in pass protection stood out on film. It's yet another area of the game where the brute physicality he adds to an offense shows up, and his addition could really help out an offensive line that is still struggling to assert itself.
As a veteran of 11 NFL seasons, Jackson is obviously well-versed in just about every protection scheme and blitz package that's out there. There isn't much he hasn't seen at this point, and his prior experience playing in Josh McDaniels' system (2011 Rams) figures to help ease his late transition into a "new" offense.
While that experience is obviously a plus, Jackson's physicality truly shines. His size and strength allows him to not only pick up blitzing linebackers, but to stonewall them in their tracks. You can probably count the running backs with the physical ability to pick up Jason Pierre-Paul and hold him off single-handedly like this on one hand.
Jackson also excels when asked to "chip" an edge rusher on his way out of the backfield into a route. When he decides to chip a defender, that defender's rush is usually over, as Jackson is fully willing and able to lower his shoulder and deliver a shot. This could prove to be a godsend for the Patriots struggling tackles, who could face some dangerous edge rushers in the playoffs (Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Carlos Dunlap, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, to name a few). Jackson's physicality could be utilized to neutralize the weakness Marcus Cannon represents in pass protection, and he could also help Vollmer out against the top edge guys that require extra attention regardless of matchup.
In his prime, Jackson was one of the game's top pass catching backs (he has a 90 catch, 806 yard season on his resume). The tape reveals that age has robbed him of some of that dynamic ability, but he's still a reliable checkdown option if things break down.
Without top-notch quickness, Jackson is no longer a coverage mismatch to exploit. The majority of his catches didn't come from beating a defender one-on-one with a route, but as a checkdown left alone either over the middle or out in the flat. The pass-happy Falcons did occasionally split him out wide when they went empty backfield, so he at least has some prior experience doing that. However, that certainly doesn't play to his strengths, and I'd be surprised if he's asked to do that often with the Pats.
While Jackson isn't a dynamic receiver, he has steady, reliable hands that should endear him to Tom Brady. He's not particularly explosive once he gets it, but is still a load to tackle in the open field, particularly if he's able to get some downhill momentum going. He'll lower his shoulder and make opposing defensive backs pay for making the tackle.
The pass catching ability that made him so versatile in St. Louis showed up a few times on film with how natural he looks catching the ball over the shoulder while on an outlet into the flat. This Week 10 catch against the Buccaneers was a highlight, but he made similar plays several times throughout the three games I watched, generally gaining a solid 5-6 yards before momentum carried him out of bounds.
There are plenty of reasons to like Jackson beyond his impressive work on the field. He's well known and respected throughout the year as a relentless worker (yesterday's tweet certainly proved he hasn't been slacking in the gym) and a lead-by-example type in the locker room. He's also fresh, having not been hit in nearly a calendar year and healthy (it's worth noting that nagging injuries contributed to his poor 2013 season in Atlanta). Finally, he's a highly motivated team-first guy, as he's only made the playoffs once (in 2004 as a 21 year old rookie) throughout his storied career. He's hungry.
I particularly like the signing because he's a perfect fit for what the Pats are trying to do offensively. They typically turn to a power running game to give them an element of toughness at this time of year, something that could be seen over the past three games. After being one of the most run averse offenses in football for much of the regular season, they've been highly balanced over their past two games, with a 57-65 run-pass ratio during that span. They also attempted to establish the run early three weeks ago against the Eagles, and mustered 25 carries in that one before the score forced them into a pass happy approach later in the game.
In the short-term, Jackson (assuming he's physically close to the player on tape from last season) offers a between-the-tackles upgrade over Brandon Bolden and James White. Neither of them come close to matching the physicality Jackson brings to an offense, and his ability to consistently grind out the tough yards has been missing from this offense. His ball security is also a major plus, as he's only committed four fumbles over the past six years despite carrying some heavy workloads over that time. Jackson is also an option to eat up some touches over the next two weeks, while the offense figures to be missing key players like Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman due to injury.
In the long-term (i.e. postseason), Jackson's arrival could add another element to an offense that prides itself on being "multiple". If he can make the power rushing game respectable, it will make it far more difficult for opposing defenses to load up with defensive backs to defend Brady's weapons, nearly all of whom should be back for the Divisional Round. He'll essentially step into LeGarrette Blount's role, but his ability to be an asset in the passing game (both as a blocker and dump-off option) should allow the team to open up the playbook more with him in the game. For example, the play-action game should be more effective with a battering ram like Jackson to worry about behind Brady.
Jackson's arrival could help out the struggling offensive line in more ways than one. If he helps the Pats establish some semblance of offensive balance, it will help prevent opposing pass rushers from being able to tee off on Brady. It would also play to the current group's strengths, as Bryan Stork, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon are all far better run blockers than pass protectors. Finally, Jackson's ability to physically stop rushers in their rushers in their tracks could be huge, as the Pats might need that chipping ability to slow down some of the rushers Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer will face over the next month.
This isn't to say that the Jackson of 2006 is going to show up and carry the Pats on his broad shoulders to a title a la Corey Dillon. However, the film shows that Jackson is still capable of being an effective runner between the tackles, especially if his blocking gives him enough space to get going. When the team wants to utilize the power run game, he should be able to get what the line gets him plus a few extra yards. That can only help a Pats offense that, should Edelman and Amendola return in January, will be very difficult to defend during the postseason.