Saturday November 28th, 2015 2:42AM

Falcons' running game has room to improve

By The Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Atlanta Falcons signed running back Steven Jackson to a three-year, $12 million contract to firm up a soft spot in their offense.

After their preseason opener, questions remain about the running game.

Jackson, who was a free agent after rushing for at least 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons with the Rams, had five carries for 8 yards in a 34-10 loss to the Bengals on Thursday.

The Falcons, who ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing last season (87.3 yards per game), had just 92 yards rushing overall.

That may have had more to do with Atlanta's offensive line than Jackson. He and the Falcons' top skill position players did not play much in the game.

Center Peter Konz, a second-year pro replacing retired 13-year veteran Todd McClure, played the first 14 snaps. Tackles Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder played much more just days after projected right tackle starter Michael Johnson suffered a season-ending leg injury.

Left guard Justin Blalock, a seven-year veteran, said it wouldn't be right to expect Atlanta's new line combination to be immediately comfortable. Konz finished last season at right guard.

"We kind of leaned on him for a lot of things," Blalock said of McClure. "It was a little weird being out there without him, but the more we practice the more this group bonds."

Another factor is that the Bengals have one of the top defensive lines in the NFL with Geno Atkins, Robert Geathers and Domata Peko.

The Falcons' first possession stalled in the red zone. On third-and-2 from the Cincinnati 16, Atkins dropped Jackson for a 3-yard loss to force a Matt Bryant field goal.

The Falcons released right tackle Tyson Clabo in the offseason in a cost-cutting move, and Johnson was expected to start there. Last week, he dislocated his left ankle and fractured his fibula.

Holmes, a third-round draft choice out of Southern Mississippi last year, played just seven snaps in a rookie season derailed by a foot injury. He started and played 39 snaps at right tackle against Cincinnati.

Schraeder, an undrafted rookie out of Division II Valdosta State, played 34 snaps at right tackle and backing up Sam Baker on the left.

Another undrafted rookie tackle, Alex Savoie of McNeese State, was in for 10 plays.

"When I first got in there I wasn't really settled in. I was kind of nervous, just really excited for the first snap," Holmes said. "After the first drive, I started getting comfortable, settling in, talking to my teammates."

On Friday, the Falcons signed tackle Jeff Nady, who was cut by the Jaguars after being signed as an undrafted rookie out of Nevada.

"He's a guy who has a little bit of experience in Jacksonville, an offensive lineman that we're going to work at the right tackle position," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Blalock believes the line will gel.

"Communication I think will be the slowest thing to come along because there are a lot of calls that have to be made, things that have to be seen," he said. "Sometimes, we might have to help out or make some extra calls, but nothing dramatic."

Notes: Falcons Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones, who did not play against the Bengals because of tightness in both hamstrings, was limited in Saturday's rain-delayed practice. Coach Mike Smith said Jones should return to full participation Sunday or Monday.
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