FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons ranked at or near the top half of the rushing teams in the NFL until last season.
Now, they can't seem to find a yard when they need it most.
After rushing for 146 yards against Miami in Week 3, the rushing attack has been closed for business by opposing defenses.
The Falcons hoped for improvement with the return of Steven Jackson last week against Arizona, but they were stuffed again, gaining only 27 yards on 14 carries.
The blocking up front clearly was the issue, as Jackson was absolved of any of the blame. He was met several times in the backfield as the Falcons struggled to seal off the back side of plays and didn't get a push at the point of attack.
"You've got to give your back a chance," Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "If you're going to run the football, you have to give him good design in the run game. We've got to give him a good design of what the plays are and at the point of attack. We've got to move somebody."
Under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, the Falcons were a power running team. From 2008-11, they leaned heavily on running back Michael Turner as quarterback Matt Ryan developed his NFL passing skills. They finished second (152.7 per game) in 2008, then 15th (117.2), 12th (118.2), 17th (114.6) in rushing as Turner amassed 5,281 yards.
When Koetter was hired in 2012, the Falcons coveted him for his knowledge of the vertical passing game, and they rode that attack to the NFC Championship game last season as Ryan set single-season franchise records for attempts (615), comple
tions (422), completion percentage (68.6), yards (4,719) and touchdowns (32).
The offense finished ranked 29th in rushing at 87.3 yards per game.
The Falcons' blocking issues are across the board.
"That could not only be the (offensive) line, but it could be the tight end or the fullback," Koetter said. "It could be the wide receivers at the point of attack on a (defensive back). But we've got to give our backs a chance.
"The second thing is that we can't get behind because that takes you out of your run game because you're only getting so many possessions."
The Falcons believe Jackson, who turned 30 in July, can still carry the rushing attack. But the Falcons couldn't really evaluate his Arizona game.
"It's not fair to say because he didn't really get a chance," Koetter said. "Steven is a proven player in this league."
The Falcons have averaged 62.4 yards rushing per game, which ranks last in the NFL. Jackson doesn't feel that he has to prove anything.
"At this point, my ability has been proven over time," Jackson said.
"I just need to get out there and get in the flow of the game and work on my chemistry with my offensive line. It's not necessary for me to feel like I need to panic."
Jackson, who had a 50-yard gain in the season opener against New Orleans, has gained 83 yards on 23 carries this season.
"It's not frustrating," Jackson said. "I'm just disappointed that we didn't win (against Arizona). The work that needs to be put in during the week is being done."
The Falcons are about to play their eighth game, but are still working on their chemistry.
"We've had guys shuffling around up front, and I haven't been in there as well," Jackson said. "We are working on our chemistry and my running style. Dirk is getting used to my running style. There are a lot of moving parts."
Running the ball won't get much easier against Carolina, which has allowed only 79.3 yards per game and ranks second in the league. The Panthers added rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to go with defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy along the line. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are playing well, too.
"They are a very aggressive defense," Jackson said. "We have to make sure that we match their intensity, make plays in the running game and build off of that."