FLOWERY BRANCH — Steven Jackson has been the feature running back for most of his 11-year NFL career.
Now 31 and coming off a disappointing first season with the Atlanta Falcons, Jackson is adopting a new approach.
He's still the starter, but Jackson is letting others take multiple turns in the backfield for the first time since 2004, when he split responsibilities with Marshall Faulk in St. Louis.
As the Falcons (1-0) prepare to visit Cincinnati (1-0) this weekend, Jackson likes how Jacquizz Rodgers, rookie Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith are helping him complement the game plan.
"Each guy has earned his carries and his playing time," Jackson said Wednesday. "That's what training camp is for, to show coaches that you can make things happen when you get the ball. I think each guy did that in camp, and it's carried over into the season."
Jackson's pedigree is not questioned in the Falcons' locker room. He is the league's active career leading rusher and still uses his 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame to bruise opponents.
But the trio of Rodgers, Freeman and Smith are smaller, quicker and more elusive, giving the Falcons a tough foursome to defend.
"If you're going to use multiple backs, you want each guy to have a set of skills that another guy doesn't have so you can take advantage of that as a coordinator," Jackson said. "I think that was evident in the preseason. You could see guys make flashes of plays in different areas of the game."
In the Falcons' overtime win over New Orleans last week, Jackson and his backups combined for 123 yards rushing, 72 yards receiving and two touchdowns on 27 touches.
Mike Smith, who used Michael Turner as the feature back in his first five years before Jackson signed as a free agent last year, wants his backfield to give opponents different looks all season.
"That group is very unselfish," Smith said. "Probably one of the most rewarding things about the game was the interaction of our players when someone was playing their position and made a big play."
The Falcons were relieved to run the ball effectively against the Saints. That was hardly the case last year as the rushing attack finished the season ranked last in the NFL.
Jackson was hampered by a left hamstring injury, missed four games and finished with 543 yards rushing and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry — the lowest numbers of his career. He suffered a scare last month when he hurt his right hamstring, but said there are no lingering issues with his legs entering Week 2.
"I can always get better," Jackson said. "I will continue to say that until I hang up these cleats. I was pleased with my efforts and just continue to build off that."
A running back-by-committee approach is nothing new to Freeman, who shared snaps with James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams last season as Florida State won the national championship.
"It works out for all of us," Freeman said. "I had to do it at Florida State. Whenever you get your opportunity, you've just to take full advantage of it."
Notes: Rookie LT Jeff Matthews, the No. 6 overall draft pick, was held out of practice. Matthews left the Saints game late in the second quarter with an ankle injury. ... Gabe Carimi will start at left tackle if Matthews can't play. Carimi, a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2011, played the whole second half against New Orleans. ... WR Roddy White was limited in practice by a sore knee.