New Orleans, La. - The Atlanta Falcons have added 13 rookies to their squad: seven draft choices and six free agents. But it's a long-time veteran addition that might prove the most challenging for the Saints on Sunday.
The Falcons have a locked and loaded team already – don't forget they narrowly missed out on playing in the Super Bowl last year. Returning are key weapons like quarterback Matt Ryan and tight end Tony Gonzalez, plus receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Now, Atlanta has added a powerful, speedy threat to their backfield in Steven Jackson – formerly of the St. Louis Rams.
"He's a big powerful back," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "He's hard to bring down. He's hard to tackle. I just think he brings a physical element to any offense. So that's a big pickup for them."
Jackson is making his regular season debut for Atlanta after posting eight 1,000-yard-plus seasons. That's tied for the fourth-longest streak in the NFL.
Expect the Falcons to use Jackson as a critical part of their attack against the Saints out in the flat. Atlanta seems to be expecting to have some success with Jackson when he's going against the Saints' outside linebackers especially. Saints linebacker Martez Wilson warns that's premature.
"We've got to get to him as fast as we can," Wilson said. "Gang tackle him and grab onto any moving part and just stop his momentum."
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan says Atlanta's offensive skill players test a secondary as much as any team east of Denver.
"They are a great challenge," Ryan said. "They can throw it, and they can run it. We have to be at our best, and we plan on being that."
Ryan perceives Jackson as a dual threat, and that has kept his mind whirling this week.
"I think he's also an excellent receiver," Ryan said. "I think that would be the one redeeming quality he has over Michael Turner. Both of them are hard runners, both of them are premier power backs. I think that would be the only difference."
During Jackson's last three games against the Saints when he was with the Rams, he rushed for 386 yards on 67 carries, scoring three touchdowns. He also caught 17 passes. Saints defensive end Cam Jordan remembers Jackson well from their meeting in St. Louis his rookie season.
"That's definitely going to add some power to their rush," Jordan said. "He's definitely one of the better running backs I've faced. I certainly remember his speed, agility and power. There aren't too many running backs made like him. They're definitely going to have an improved running game. We've got to get in the backfield before he can get off. We have to disrupt the O-Line."
Jackson ended last season with 1,042 yards rushing and four touchdowns for the Rams, but he was unhappy in St. Louis. The Rams allowed Jackson to void the final year of his six-year contract this past February, paving the way for him to sign a new three-year deal with the Falcons.