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    Absence Creates Opportunity

    Wednesday, July 30, 2008


    By Nick Wagoner
    Senior Writer

    MEQUON, Wis. – More often than not, the opportunity to prove oneself in the NFL is created by an injury to the player ahead of him on the depth chart. For Antonio Pittman, Brian Leonard and Travis Minor, their opportunity has arrived because running back Steven Jackson is nowhere to be found.

    “You have to utilize that opportunity as an asset for your team because those guys can use the work,” coach Scott Linehan said. “We have a pretty good idea of what Steven is capable of doing, and there is quite a bit unknown about our younger backs. I think it’s a great opportunity for (them) to move up the ladder and get reps with the other groups.”

    More to the point, it’s a great opportunity for the other backs, especially second-year runners Pittman and Leonard to work with the first team and prove or disprove their ability to carry the load in the event Jackson doesn’t play or suffers an injury.

    By the end of the 2007 season, Pittman had nudged ahead of Leonard as the team’s primary No. 2 back behind Jackson. While Leonard still worked in as a fullback and some on third down, Pittman got many of the carries when Jackson went to the sideline for a rest.

    But Pittman never truly proved himself capable of handling those duties, in part because he got a late start. The Rams picked Pittman up off waivers soon after New Orleans released the fourth-round pick at the end of the preseason.

    Pittman was quickly behind the eight ball trying to learn the offense and struggled to find his niche. When all was said and done, Pittman had carried 38 times for 139 yards with three catches for 15 yards.

    “He was sitting out there waiting, wondering what was going to happen to him,” Linehan said. “We claimed him, he came in, whole new offense, and it was kind of like just redshirting at least for the time being. And now, he was able to play last year (and) got a taste of it.”

    That taste served as an appetizer for an offseason that saw sweeping changes on the offense and with the offensive coaching staff. The Rams hired Al Saunders as offensive coordinator and brought in Art Valero as the new running backs coach.

    Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Valero got a strong first impression of the young running back.

    “The first guy I met walking in the building in February was Antonio Pittman,” Valero said. “He never went home, never left, he moved to St. Louis, was in the building every day working out and he’s really done a great job of grasping the offense. He’s a sponge. I’m proud of the way he has gone about his business.”

    By the time the offseason program was complete, Pittman had earned rave reviews both public and private from the coaching staff for his work.

    For his part, Pittman was more than happy to adapt to Saunders’ offense. In the Saunders’ system, one cutback reads and catching the ball out of the backfield are primary principles and felt more comfortable to the style Pittman had been accustomed to at Ohio State.

    It also didn’t hurt that instead of being a month or two behind, Pittman was suddenly on the same page as the rest of the backs in learning a new system.

    “I feel as though I had a great (offseason),” Pittman said. “I put the time in and worked very hard this offseason. It feels like a fair shot to get out here and finally get to compete and get the playing time that hopefully will come with hard work.”

    For now, Pittman is getting the bulk of the top running back reps but that doesn’t mean he is or will be the only back getting repetitions until Jackson returns.

    Leonard is the Swiss Army Knife of the team’s offense, capable of playing just about every role short of working on the offensive line or quarterback. It’s that versatility that helped Leonard be a contributor as a runner, a blocker, a pass catcher and on special teams in 2007.

    After the Rams used their second round pick on him last April, Leonard racked up 303 yards on 86 carries and 183 yards on 30 catches. He proved capable of playing through pain and earned the respect of all of his teammates and coaches.

    Valero says Leonard’s versatility makes him a player teams have to constantly be aware of.

    “He’s a renaissance guy,” Valero said. “He can do a little of everything. The great thing with Brian is that he’s bright so you can move him around. There’s a lot of things you can do. In every offense there are packages of plays that are individual specific. When you get to the point where all of a sudden people catch on when he’s in the game he’s going to do this and that…he can do everything so you really don’t skip a beat. As long as he is able to do that we become more versatile as an offense and not really one dimensional.”

    Leonard was originally expected to work almost exclusively at fullback in this camp but with Jackson’s absence, he has been almost exclusively a tailback. That likely won’t continue upon Jackson’s arrival but for the time being Leonard is continuing in his varied role.

    “That’s been good because we’ve been able to see him do some of the things that he’s capable of doing there so you’re practicing your utilization of him in some different spots,” Linehan said.

    If the season started today, it’s likely that Pittman would get the start but Leonard would work in tandem with him. Of course, Minor is also around and provides a steady veteran example for the two young backs to follow.

    Ultimately, Jackson is likely to return and none of the players working with the first team now will be called on to get the start in any games of meaning. But that doesn’t mean what happens now won’t go a long way in determining how the depth chart looks with or without Jackson listed.

    “With Steven, we want him, we need him, he’s part of this family and he’s great,” Valero said. “But that has created great opportunity for these guys and they have seized that opportunity.”

    It remains to be seen, though, which of the young runners will grasp the opportunity for the long term.


  2. #2
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    Re: Absence Creates Opportunity

    I can't figure S. Jacksons thinking. Last year of a contract, free agency status coming up. One would think he would playout this season, and prove once and for all his market worth....or is he afraid to do so?

    Begs the question, is he stupid or smart? Capitalizing now has its advantages if he suspects a repeat of last year with the o-line, or isn't confident in his own abilities. If its a long term deal he seeks, should he rank high in top RBs at the end of the season, he gets to pretty much write his own deal being in demand...still i can't figure out Jacksons move.

    But darn the Rams history with developing players and letting them go else where is a bad one. So while Jackson sulks, Pittman, Leonard, & Minor gains experience and other teams are watching
    Last edited by Ram Dragoon; -07-31-2008 at 08:07 PM.

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