ATLANTA — There’s a new name on the list of Matt Ryan’s top receiving targets.
It’s Steven Jackson.
For the first time in Ryan’s six seasons, the Falcons’ starting running back is a dual threat as a runner and receiver. Jackson has the most catches of any NFL running back in his nine seasons, a fact sometimes overshadowed by his eight straight seasons with 1,000 yards rushing.
Jackson, who left the Rams to sign a three-year, $12 million deal with the Falcons, is replacing Michael Turner, who was rarely used as a receiver out of the backfield.
The Falcons’ already potent offense now looks even stronger. Ryan can throw screen passes to Jackson when he’s not targeting tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Jackson’s career high of 90 catches with St. Louis in 2006 easily tops Turner’s career total of 70. Jackson had 38 catches last season.
Jackson’s versatility fits well with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s philosophy. Though Turner was a one-dimensional back as a starter, Koetter still brought a new emphasis to the screen pass last season as backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers ranked fourth on the team with 53 catches.
Koetter’s offense looked like a good fit when Jackson considered his options as a free agent.
“This team was pretty dynamic when it came to throwing screens, taking advantage of the defense being overly aggressive,” Jackson said Monday. “We have a number of playmakers on this team, wherever I can fit in on the package, whether it’s being a decoy or catching the screen making something happen down the field.”
The Falcons’ running backs may have been too predictable in 2012. Rodgers had more yards receiving than rushing, so defenses could adjust when he replaced Turner. Meanwhile, the bullish Turner’s 19 catches set a career high but were not enough to earn respect as a receiver.
Jackson, who celebrated his 30th birthday last week, remains dangerous as a runner and receiver. The challenge for opposing defenses becomes more complicated.
“He will allow us to keep the same personnel, and not have to necessarily put a change-of-pace back in,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith.
Jackson, who began his career with the Rams in 2004, has 407 career catches. According to STATS LLC, that’s the most of any running back in that period – more than Brian Westbrook, LaDainian Tomlinson and Reggie Bush.
“I’ve always taken pride in being a franchise back, and to do that you have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield, as well as protect the quarterback,” Jackson said. “And I’ve just worked on that throughout the years.”
Jackson set the Rams record with 10,135 yards rushing.
Smith said some of the strengths that make Jackson an effective runner also help him have success catching passes.
“He’s got very good hands and very good vision,” Smith said. “Usually, a running back has to have good vision because it’s check-down routes. It’s the last read in most cases, and the integrity of the play is about to break down, and he has a good feel for it. I think that’s why he’s such a good runner as well. He has excellent vision.”
Jackson said he didn’t come to Atlanta just to post more big numbers as a runner and receiver. He appeared in only two playoff games with the Rams – both coming in his rookie season. He said he is looking for his best chance to play in the Super Bowl.
“Football is the ultimate team sport, and after so long of being through so many tough years there, and not even being able to compete in the postseason, it takes a toll on you,” Jackson said. “The way the game is evolving, it’s going to more of a passing league, and I know realistically my chances to win the Super Bowl are numbered.
“Atlanta presents a great opportunity for me to take advantage of.”
Jackson said he’s not worried about a decline in production at 30. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season, close to his career average of 4.2.
“I don’t worry about it all,” he said. “... I think each and every generation has a guy that breaks the mold, and I truly believe that I’m that running back for this generation.”