The NFL’s active career-leading rusher has been reporting to work early and staying late so he can make a good impression on his new team.
There’s a lot to learn for Jackson, who left St. Louis after nine seasons to sign a three-year, $12 million contract with Atlanta.
Jackson says he signed a three-year contract with Atlanta three months ago because the Falcons — with quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez and the wideout tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones — offer him a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl.
“I just think that this offense has so many weapons that I’m going to get quality carries,” Jackson said at mini-camp this week. “I’m going to have opportunities that may not be 25 carries a game, but it will be quality touches and allow me to close out a game.”
Closing out games has haunted the Falcons’ running game over the last two years.
One glaring example came against New Orleans in November 2011, when Michael Turner was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 in overtime. The Saints needed just three snaps to kick a field goal and leave Atlanta with a victory that helped them win the NFC South.
Five months ago at the Georgia Dome, the stakes were higher and the anguish greater when the Falcons failed to protect a second-half lead in the NFC championship game.
Atlanta finished 10 yards shy of a touchdown and a trip to the Super Bowl, failing to score against San Francisco in the final two quarters.
Jackson doesn’t believe the Falcons will struggle this year to control the clock late in games or to convert short-yardage situations. Though he stops short of promising to change Atlanta’s fortune single-handedly, Jackson sees potential for vast improvement.
“I’m not really quite sure what was happening in the years previous, but these are runs where you have to keep churning your legs, (make the right) read and trust your offensive line to get the job done,” he said. “If it pops (for a big gain), that’s great, but most importantly, it’s to move the chains.”
Jackson has been through 12 practices with the Falcons, most recently in this week’s mandatory mini-camp. He will make his debut in full pads when the team opens training camp late next month, at which point Jackson can start to gauge how Atlanta will attack short-yardage situations on the ground.
“Right now, short yardage is something we’re definitely going to pay extra attention to and especially goal line as well,” Jackson said. “Once I get a feel for how guys (on the offensive line) are going to pull and who tends to kick out a little wider in pass protection, those are real technical things that you just can’t get a feel for until you put the pads on.”
At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Jackson already seems to run more explosively in practice than did Turner, who had two surgeries last offseason and was slowed by an assortment of minor injuries. Turner was released in February after making two Pro Bowls in five seasons with Atlanta.
Turner is 11 inches shorter, is listed 7 pounds heavier and is more compact, so Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wants to tailor Jackson’s role to better suit his size.
“Coach Koetter is still going to allow me to be a downhill runner, catch the ball out of the backfield and most importantly protect Matt,” Jackson said. He believes Koetter and Ryan will be delighted with his versatility.
“We’re definitely going to have opportunities,” Jackson said. “If teams decide to (cover White and Jones one-on-one) or use cover-2 in the red zone, it allows for a lot of underneath receptions for myself to make a guy miss in the open field and hopefully get into the end zone.”
Falcons head coach Mike Smith likes what he’s seen so far from his new star running back.
“When he gets his shoulders going north and south, he’s tough guy to tackle,” Smith said. “And we plan hopefully to get him in space quite a bit catching the ball out of the backfield.”