FLOWERY BRANCH — Steven Jackson's latest hamstring injury is giving Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith a chance to fill the void at running back for the Atlanta Falcons.
It's a tough assignment considering how far the run game has fallen, dropping from 17th in 2011 to 29th in 2012 to worst in the NFL last season.
Jackson, the NFL's active career leading rusher, missed four games with a left hamstring injury and finished his first year as a Falcon with 543 yards rushing and 3.5 per carry — the lowest numbers of his 10-season tenure.
For the past several days, Jackson has been nursing a right hamstring injury, putting his three backups in competition for snaps.
Rodgers and Freeman are splitting work with the starters while Smith is working with the second and third teams.
There's no immediate timetable for Jackson's return, but Rodgers says the team is prepared to move on regardless.
"In this league, you've got to always be ready," Rodgers said Saturday. "You've got to practice like you're ready to play in a game and when your time comes, you've got to prove what you've got."
Over the past three years, the Falcons used the 5-foot-6, 188-pound Rodgers as a change-of-pace option to veteran power backs such as Jackson and Michael Turner.
Rodgers will have the first chance to claim the starting job until Jackson is ready to return, but coach Mike Smith likes the punch that Freeman, who last season helped Florida State win the national championship, brings to the offense.
Another step in Freeman's growth will come Monday and Tuesday when Atlanta hosts the Tennessee Titans for joint practices.
"They'll present some different rushes and some different blitzes, but he's on a fast track to help us," Mike Smith said. "We know what he can do with the ball in his hands. In this league, you've got to be able to protect the quarterback, and the running backs are an integral part of that."
The Falcons struggled in keeping Matt Ryan clean last year as the former Pro Bowl quarterback suffered a career-high 44 sacks and was pressured 203 times, most in the NFL.
Antone Smith is hoping to earn snaps with the first-team offense, but he acknowledges the need to improve his blocking skills. The team already knows what he can do on special teams as Smith spent his first four years mostly working on punt and kickoff returns and coverages.
Blocking in the backfield, however, has been harder to master.
"That's always been an issue for me," Antone Smith said. "Every game you have to calibrate that pass protection, and you want to be an artist at that. Everybody can run the ball. If you can't run the ball, you wouldn't be here."
Coming off a 4-12 season, the Falcons can't return to respectability with a one-dimensional offense that last season averaged 20.1 run attempts per game, lowest in the league, while leading the NFC and ranking second overall with 42.2 pass attempts.
Freeman hopes to help lighten the load on Ryan and his receivers and give the rushing attack some traction.
"I feel like nobody can stop me but me, and when the opportunity is there, you have to seize the moment every time," Freeman said. "I feel like I was going to eventually get to this point where the coaches throw me in the fire. It happened to be during camp, so I can get reps now. When live action comes in the games, I can try to be good at everything."
Notes: FS Kemal Ishmael, a seventh-round pick last year from Central Florida, began training camp with the third-team defense, but he's now working with the starters as Dwight Lowery and rookie Dez Southward nurse injuries. Lowery left Friday's scrimmage after hitting his head. Southward, a third-round draft pick from Wisconsin, hurt his knee earlier this week. Neither has an immediate timetable to return.