4 St. Louis RAMS

A berth in the playoffs is a long shot, but Steven Jackson runs on and on
September 05, 2010

AFTER LOSING 28--7 to the Vikings at home in their preseason opener on Aug. 14, the Rams returned to the practice field determined to clean up their mistakes. Late in a session two days afterward, Steven Jackson took a handoff, headed toward the right side of the line and was bumped off balance by wide receiver Donnie Avery, who had been pushed into the hole by a stronger defender.

Jackson, who is as intense in workouts as he is in games, picked himself up off the turf and slammed the ball between his hands in frustration. His angry words went unheard by onlookers at practice, but they might as well have been Details, details. Later in the practice he went to Avery and explained to the receiver that he has to hold his ground when sealing the edge on a running play to his side, otherwise the hole shrinks.

"And the holes are already small enough," Jackson says, chuckling.

Not that Jackson needs his holes to be gaping. Despite playing behind a makeshift line last season, and with a passing game that was nonexistent at times, the two-time Pro Bowler ran for 1,416 yards, and his 1,738 yards from scrimmage ranked fifth in the NFL. With rookie Sam Bradford, the top pick in April's draft, expected to take over at quarterback at some point this year—if not right away—Jackson will be counted on to carry even more of the load in St. Louis, which seems physically impossible considering that he's been carrying most of it already. His 324 rushes last season were 297 more than his backup, the largest gap in the league.

Says center Jason Brown, "What do they call that special player on Madden? The game-breaker? He's our game-breaker. He adds an explosive nature to our offense. We know as an offensive line if we do our job at least 10 percent better than last year and sustain some of those blocks, it's off to the house for him. Our goal this year is make sure that we allow Steven to shine in the way that he deserves."

Jackson has been overshadowed much of his career not only because he has played on bad teams—the Rams were 1--15 in 2009; they're 6--42 since '07 and have not had a winning season during his six-year tenure—but also because his Pro Bowl seasons coincided with record-breaking performances by other backs. (Last season it was Tennessee's Chris Johnson who took center stage.) The only records Jackson is concerned with at this point, however, are those on the paper taped to his locker: the St. Louis franchise rushing leaders. Jackson needs only 539 yards to eclipse Eric Dickerson's alltime Rams mark of 7,245. If Jackson maintains his career average of 79.8 yards a game, he'll reach that sometime around the Rams' Oct. 24 date at Tampa Bay. "When I signed here, I wanted to leave this franchise as its leading rusher," he says. "I wanted to break every rushing record that they have. That's still my personal goal."

It grates on Jackson that his only playoff appearance came as a rookie backup in 2004, but the prospects of a turnaround this season are dim. No matter how ready Bradford is when he takes over, there isn't much for him to work with. Injuries prevented the five projected starting offensive linemen—the team drafted 6'5", 325-pound left tackle Rodger Saffold 33rd overall out of Indiana in April to shore up a group that gave up 44 sacks last year, seventh worst in the NFL—from playing together during the first half of training camp. The St. Louis receiving corps, meanwhile, lacks a proven No. 1 wideout, a deficiency that became more pronounced after Avery (47 receptions in 2009) was lost for the season last week when he tore the ACL in his right knee.

But Jackson, rather than seek an exit from such a mess before his skills diminish, soldiers on, running through defenders, setting an example for teammates, focusing on the microscopic details that ultimately separate success from failure. "That's why Steven is as good as he is," says middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. "He has the mentality that if he's going to be on the field, he's going to work. When you have a guy who is the face of your franchise and he carries around that type of attitude, it really sends a message and gets the point across."

In St. Louis, Jackson's point can't hit home soon enough.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH STEVE SPAGNUOLO

OFFENSE

2009 RANK: 29

QB SAM BRADFORD (R)

G 3

ATT 69

COMP 39

PCT 56.5

YARDS 562

TD 2

INT 0

RATING 134.5

RB STEVEN JACKSON

G 15

ATT 324

YARDS 1,416

AVG 4.4

REC 51

YARDS 322

AVG 6.3

TTD 4

FB MIKE KARNEY

G 14

ATT 2

YARDS 8

AVG 4.0

REC 6

YARDS 16

AVG 2.7

TTD 0

WR LAURENT ROBINSON

G 3

REC 13

YARDS 167

TTD 1

WR DANNY AMENDOLA

G 14

REC 43

YARDS 326

TTD 1

TE DANIEL FELLS

G 14

REC 21

YARDS 273

TTD 3

LT RODGER SAFFOLD (R)

G 12

HT 6'5"

WT 323

LG JACOB BELL

G 13

HT 6'4"

WT 300

C JASON BROWN

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 328

RG ADAM GOLDBERG

G 16

HT 6'7"

WT 309

RT JASON SMITH

G 8

HT 6'5"

WT 307

DEFENSE

2009 RANK: 29

DE VICTOR ADEYANJU

G 10

TACKLES 7

SACKS 0

INT 0

DT FRED ROBBINS

G 16

TACKLES 25

SACKS 2

INT 0

DT CLIFTON RYAN

G 16

TACKLES 42

SACKS 1

INT 0

DE CHRIS LONG

G 16

TACKLES 43

SACKS 5

INT 0

LB LARRY GRANT

G 16

TACKLES 19

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB JAMES LAURINAITIS

G 16

TACKLES 120

SACKS 2

INT 2

LB NA'IL DIGGS

G 14

TACKLES 39

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB RONALD BARTELL

G 15

TACKLES 66

SACKS 0

INT 0

FS OSHIOMOGHO ATOGWE

G 12

TACKLES 74

SACKS 1

INT 2

SS JAMES BUTLER

G 13

TACKLES 69

SACKS 0

INT 3

CB JUSTIN KING

G 15

TACKLES 36

SACKS 0

INT 0

SPECIAL TEAMS

P DONNIE JONES

PUNTS 90

AVG 46.8

NET 41.7

K JOSH BROWN

FG 19--24

XP 16--16

POINTS 73

PR DANNY AMENDOLA

RET 31

AVG 11.6

TD 0

KR DANNY AMENDOLA

RET 66

AVG 24.5

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 1--15

September

12 Arizona

19 at Oakland

26 Washington

October

3 Seattle

10 at Detroit

17 San Diego

24 at Tampa Bay

31 Carolina

November

7 BYE

14 at San Francisco

21 Atlanta

28 at Denver

December

5 at Arizona

12 at New Orleans

19 Kansas City

26 San Francisco

January

2 at Seattle

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 31

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .449

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 4

ANALYSIS

Here's how parity is supposed to function. As the Rams try to work out of their funk, they have just five dates with teams that had winning records in 2009. Of their first eight games, only three are on the road, and those trips are to Oakland, Detroit and Tampa Bay (combined '09 record: 10--38). St. Louis will need to make the best of the first half because the season gets more daunting after a Week 9 bye, with four challenging road games in five weeks.

SPOTLIGHT

Sam Bradford, Quarterback

ONE THING is certain in St. Louis: Bradford, who was drafted first overall and signed a six-year, $78 million contract that includes a record $50 million in guaranteed money, will play this year. The only questions are When? and How much?

Coach Steve Spagnuolo was an Eagles assistant in 1999 when Philadelphia drafted Donovan McNabb second overall and used him situationally for two months before making him the starter. That turned out well for the Eagles, as McNabb took the team to five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. Still, Spagnuolo has refused to say if he'll follow the same blueprint with Bradford.

But the coach's appreciation of the player has only grown since the draft. Throughout the off-season and training camp Bradford has displayed excellent arm strength, accuracy and poise in the pocket. He has consistently placed passes where only his receivers could get them, and during one drill on Aug. 16, he repeatedly zipped passes both in front of the safety and beyond the trailing linebacker on seam routes.

Also competing for the starting job is A.J. Feeley, who knows St. Louis's system from when he was with Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in Philadelphia. But it seems only a matter of time before the ball and the offense is handed to Bradford.

"I really don't know if there's a right way to do it," says Bradford, who threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns in a 36--35 win over the Patriots last Thursday. "I know for me, as a competitor, I want to be on the field as soon as our coaches feel I'm ready."

PHOTOSCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIREHAIR FORCE Long the face of the franchise, Jackson will get help from this year's No. 1. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)