On Steven Jackson and the passing game

Prior to the arrival of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter last year, we used to spend a lot of time busting on the Atlanta Falcons for almost never using screen passes.

There might have been a reason why predecessor Mike Mularkey was so hesitant to throw to his running backs. Michael Turner simply wasn’t a receiving threat. In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner caught 59 passes.

Koetter got the running backs more involved in the passing game last season, mainly by throwing to Jacquizz Rodgers a fair amount. But I suspect we could see that trend escalate tremendously in 2013.

A lot of people are viewing the arrival of Steven Jackson as Turner’s replacement as evidence that Atlanta’s running game will improve. I have no doubt that will happen.

But I think a lot of people are only looking at half of what Jackson brings to the table. Jackson is one of the best pass-catching running backs in recent history.

In fact, I just dialed up the database at ESPN Stats & Information and came up with something interesting. Since his arrival in the league in 2004, Jackson’s 407 receptions are the most by any running back in that period.

For the sake of comparison, the only other running backs with more than 300 catches during that same span are Brian Westbrook (396), LaDainian Tomlinson (386), Reggie Bush (372), Frank Gore (315), Ray Rice (311) and Darren Sproles (307).

I’m pretty sure we can expect to see some new wrinkles from Koetter because Jackson can do more than catch screen passes. He can run a lot of different routes. Rodgers can do the same.

That’s going to create all sorts of headaches for defenses that already have their hands full with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

Even coach Mike Smith, who usually goes out of his way to not give away anything close to strategy is raving about Jackson's ability as a receiver.

“He’s a big strong running back that catches the ball extremely well,'' Smith told the media Wednesday. "He creates issues for defenses. He’s just another weapon that we have in our offensive arsenal. He’s a guy who had close to 100 catches in a season, so he’s a guy that we can use in the passing game. He’s not just a running back, he’s a receiving back as well.”