TEMPE, Ariz. — His uniform might look a little different and his body might be a little more worn, but when Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson takes the field Sunday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Arizona Cardinals won’t have to do any double takes.
To them, he’s still the same old Steven Jackson.
“He’s a big back,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He’s tough. He’s been in the division a long time, so seeing him again won’t be a problem. They’ve seen him with the Rams a few times over the years. He’s another great back. He gives them one more bullet in the gun. We have to be on our P’s and Q’s.”
Recognizing him might not be a problem. After all, Jackson spent the first nine years of his career playing for division foe St. Louis. But going up against the 30-year-old has never been a walk in the park for Arizona’s defense.
While the 10-year veteran has a career average of just 76.7 yards per game in 15 appearances against the Cardinals, his last two trips to Glendale have resulted in monster performances of 130 and 139 yards respectively.
“He’s definitely a strong running back,” Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams said. “Last year, he had probably one of his best games of the year against us when he was still in St. Louis. He still has a lot left in the tank. He’s a hard-nosed runner, definitely going to get downhill as fast as possible. He’ll break a lot of arm tackles, so he’s not very easy to bring down.”
The tank level has come into question this season as Jackson, who signed a three-year deal with Atlanta back in May, has missed the last five weeks due to a hamstring injury. But don’t expect the Cardinals to take him lightly. In their eyes, he’s 100 percent.
When asked what kind of threat Jackson is when fully healthy, all Arizona head coach Bruce Arians could do was chuckle.
“He’s big, strong and fast,” Arians said. “You better have big boy pads on to tackle him, because he’s a horse.”
While his limited numbers in 2013 — 14 carries for 77 yard and six catches for 53 yards and a touchdown in two games — would suggest that Father Time has started to catch up with the three-time Pro Bowler, Jackson’s 240-pound frame and rare blend of athleticism out of the backfield creates matchup problems similar to those presented by Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
“You have to wrap [running backs like Jackson and Lynch] up, put a body on them,” said Williams. “You have to use both arms. You can’t just try to use one arm, grab them and pull them down. They’ll break through those type of tackles. You have to come with great form, like I said before you have to wrap up.”
Wrapping Lynch up was a bit of an issue in the Cardinals’ 34-22 loss back in Week 7. The Seahawks’ tailback carried the ball 21 times and had no problem shedding would-be tacklers en route to 91 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
But whereas Lynch was almost exclusively used in the run game against Arizona, the same won’t likely be true for Jackson come Sunday. Without star receivers Roddy White (hamstring) and Julio Jones (season-ending foot surgery), Jackson and second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers could see an increased role in passing situations.
“[Jackson and Rodgers] are playmakers for them,” said Williams. “They definitely get the ball to them a lot, and they definitely put up a lot of points for their team. It’s just not, ‘Oh, let’s dump the ball off and see how many yards we can get with them.’ When they get the ball in those guys’ hands, they’re expecting big plays from them. They can do a lot coming out of the backfield.”
It seems that if familiarity has bred anything when it comes to Jackson, it’s respect not contempt.
“He brings a lot to the table with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield,” Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “He’s always reliable in that sense. He’s able to pick up the blitz. He’s very savvy. And like I said, he runs the ball well. He wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t running the ball. They brought him in for a reason that was to run the ball.”
Matt Ryan might have great presence in the pocket. Future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez might be a big play waiting to happen in the middle of the field. And Harry Douglas might possess first-rate speed down the sidelines.
But Sunday, the Cardinals understand that to win they must first shut down No. 39.
“He’s a playmaker,” said Williams. “He’s been doing it for years in St. Louis, scoring touchdowns and catching touchdowns. There’s definitely an emphasis on slowing him down, because once he gets going, it’s probably going to be a long day for your defense.”