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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Mike Smith knows his Falcons finished last in the NFL in rushing last season. The coach just has a difficult time saying the words.
"We were a number I don't even want to talk about in terms of where we were statistically," Smith said Wednesday, the second day of the team's organized team activities.
The ugly numbers — 77.9 yards rushing per game and 32nd in the league in rushing — played big roles in Atlanta's disappointing 4-12 finish.
In his first season in Atlanta, running back Steven Jackson missed four games with a hamstring injury. Jackson said he doesn't want to be known as the running back on the league's worst rushing attack.
"Definitely by no means do we want to be known for that and we don't want to have another year like that," Jackson said.
A healthy Jackson says the top item on his to-do list is an improved running game in 2014.
Jackson, who will be 31 when the 2014 season opens, ran for only 543 yards and six touchdowns. That ended a streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Rams.
The Falcons added competition for Jackson by selecting Florida State running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of the NFL draft.
Other important additions for the running game were the first-round pick, offensive tackle Jake Matthews, and free-agent addition Jon Asamoah.
In Wednesday's practice, Jackson was running behind a first-team offensive line that included Matthews at right tackle and Asamoah at right guard.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he doesn't believe Jackson's decline in 2013 was about the running back turning 30.
"There's enough statistical data out there that there's something to 30-plus running backs," Koetter said. "With that said, Steven Jackson is a freak of nature. Because we didn't run well, everybody blames the running back first. Trust me, as somebody who has studied it a lot, it's not always the running back's fault when you don't run the ball well.
"He always keeps himself in great shape. I haven't been around a whole lot of guys who do a better job of taking care of their body and staying in shape."
Koetter said newcomers on the offensive line are "the main thing" for an improved ground game. Mike Tice was hired as the new offensive line coach.
"I think the adjustments we made, the guys we added up front, the addition of coach Tice and my ability to do what I can and stay healthy — I think we'll be quite all right," Jackson said.
Smith, who has made "bigger and stronger" the team's offseason priority, said starting left tackle Sam Baker looks bigger.
"I think Sam is moving around extremely well," Smith said. "He's gotten stronger, he's gotten bigger. I think it's very noticeable. You look at our team and what they've done in the offseason in term of body weight. Body weight is up and fat is down and that's a positive."
Smith said there is a renewed emphasis on a strong running game to complement the passing attack led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.
"I believe this: It's a quarterback-driven league," Smith said. "There's no doubt about it. You've got to be efficient at throwing the football. You're going to go as your quarterback goes.
"But there are times where you know that you have to run the football and they know you have to run the football and you've got to be able to do it efficiently and effectively."
NOTES: The OTAs are voluntary and Smith said White needed to miss the workouts to be with his family. White's brother, 21-year-old Tyrone Moore Jr., died in a South Carolina shooting on May 17. "Our thoughts and prayers are still with Roddy and his family at this difficult time," Smith said. ... Jones, still recovering from foot surgery, did not participate. LB Sean Weatherspoon and S Zeke Motta were on the field but held out as they also continue to recover from 2013 injuries. ... Freeman attended a NFLPA rookie event in California. Smith said attendance was mandatory for Freeman and other rookies who were invited. "It was an honor for him to be chosen for that," Smith said.
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