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By Jim ThomasOf the Post-Dispatch
Wilbert Montgomery wants Steven Jackson to start thinking like a Pro Bowler. To view himself as a star player. To visualize 1,300 yards rushing this season.
"It is doable for you," Montgomery tells Jackson. "You're a big, physical, strong guy."
Seeing himself in that role will help make it happen. At least that's the theory.
"If you think that you're quick, and you think that you're explosive, then you are going to be quick, and you are going to be explosive," says Montgomery, the Rams' running backs coach.
Not to worry. Jackson has a very healthy self-image. Like many of the great ones, he doesn't lack for confidence.
"It's always been there," Jackson said. "To be in this capacity, to be a professional athlete, you have to believe in yourself no matter what people say or write about you. Because if you don't believe in yourself, you can't expect anyone else to."
Make no mistake, Jackson believes in himself. And why shouldn't he?
During his final two college seasons at Oregon State, he led the prestigious Pacific 10 Conference in rushing.
In the 2004 draft, he was the first running back selected.
As an NFL rookie last season, he averaged 5 yards a carry despite knee problems.
And now, he's poised to do what the Rams drafted him to do: replace the mighty Marshall Faulk as the team's feature back.
During his coaching career, Mike Martz has worked with two of the greatest running backs in NFL history in Faulk and Jerome Bettis. He saw similarities between Bettis and Jackson as rookies - not so much in how they carried the football but in how they carried themselves.
"I saw Jerome (Bettis) as a rookie," Martz said. "And his demeanor, Steven's demeanor, they want the load. They don't talk about it. They just come ready to play.
"When they step into camp, you can't tell that they're a rookie. They just have that kind of persona or air about them. Steven's always had that terrific air about who he is and his abilities."
Jackson wants the ball. He wants the workload. He's ready for the handoff - from Faulk to Jackson - in the St. Louis backfield. He's ready - no, make that eager - to step out of Faulk's shadow.
"Marshall's a class act," Jackson said. "There's nothing you can say wrong about him or say bad about him. It's something I understand I'm going to have to deal with throughout my career. Hopefully, I can get through it and move on with my (career) and start my own legacy."
Given Faulk's accomplishments, Jackson realizes it won't happen overnight.
"Over time," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of him leaving the game and me just coming out and proving that I am respectable enough to replace him. After that happens, I believe I won't be asked about Marshall as much. It's just one of those things. It's just a time period, a grace period."
A grace period that will unfold several thousand rushing yards from now.
"Right," Jackson says. "Several thousand. Not just one, or two. Several."
With some broken records, too?
"Maybe. Maybe even a Super Bowl," Jackson says, laughing.
Waiting in the wings
Jackson has waited for this chance, always saying the right things, always showing Faulk proper respect. But he's been down this road before, on a smaller scale.
"My freshman year in college, I had to do kind of the same thing that I did last year - split time with a guy," Jackson said, a reference to Ken Simonton at Oregon State. "He was the school record-holder in a lot of different things. So going through that when I was only 17, 18 years old, I felt that this time (with Faulk) it was pretty easy to do. ... I had no problem playing that role."
So did he break Simonton's records?
"I broke most of them, except the career rushing," Jackson said. "I was there only three years. But single season, a lot of those things, I did break."
Make no mistake, there are times when Jackson gets antsy for playing time.
"I know he gets upset with me when I stick Marshall in at times," Martz says. "But he needs to watch Marshall do some of the things that he does. Steven's very competitive, and he wants to take all the snaps. But he understands, also, how this thing's set up."
It's set up to have Faulk still involved in the offense. Jackson gets frustrated at times when he's not in the ballgame, and says he bugs Martz to put him back in.
"Football is a game where you've just got to get in there and get in the rhythm of things," Jackson said. "Because defenses are going to show you different things, and by standing on the sideline, you really don't get a feel for it.
"You may see it, but things happen differently when they're in front of your face than when you're standing back. So it's just me wanting to get reps and me trying to learn. That's all. I'm just trying to push myself."
As opposed to trying to push Faulk out the door at Rams Park. Ideally, Jackson would like to get the ball 20 times a game. There have been indications that Martz wants to run the ball more this season. But there are no guarantees, not with the likes of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald available in the passing game.
"When the St. Louis Rams decided to draft me last year, they knew what there were bringing to the table," Jackson said. "I'm more of a run-oriented back than a receiving back. ... That's my forte, and I hope they would use me to my best ability."
Learning the game
But there is more to being an NFL back than simply taking the handoff from the quarterback and running to daylight. In many ways, playing in the NFL is like getting a Ph.D. in football. This is particularly true in the complex St. Louis offense.
For example, earlier this month, during the week of the Rams' preseason game in San Diego, the running backs had to digest nearly three dozen pass protections for mixed downs - mixed downs being downs in which the team might be just as inclined to run as to pass.
Within this group of protection schemes, there could be anywhere from four to seven variations per protection, based upon the pass routes. There were also 20 pass protection schemes in for third-down plays.
It's a lot to digest, but if a running back doesn't get it, the quarterback could get creamed.
"I'm 100 times more comfortable," Jackson said. "My head is not scrambling as much as it was last year. There's still some things that I need to clean up, of course. This is not an offense that you're going to learn in a year or two.
"But I feel a lot more comfortable with the thing. I can now actually sit down and read the protection out. It's not just a guessing game."
Montgomery sees progress from Jackson in every mental aspect of the game. Pass blocking. Understanding what the defense is trying to do on running plays. Knowing where help in the defense is coming from. Knowing where the cutback lanes should be when a safety comes down in the box. And so on.
Sometimes, there is troubleshooting involved. For example, Jackson's responsibility in a particular pass protection scheme might be taking care of potential pass rushers on the strong side. But what happens if someone happens to break through on the weak side? Then you have to improvise, and decide to do so in maybe half a second. Montgomery calls it dealing with the MDM - the Most Dangerous Man.
"It comes with time," Montgomery said. "Steven's getting there. He hasn't arrived yet, but he's getting there. And the more reps he takes out on the field, you can see him getting a little bit better each time.
"He's polishing. That gem that we found in Steven is starting to shine. He's becoming the diamond that we thought he could be."
A healthy knee
Getting Jackson to the point where he has a good grasp of the offense was one of the major goals of the offseason. Making sure his right knee was healthy was another. Jackson's knee wasn't right for much of the '04 season, and it was one of the underplayed stories of the campaign.
He was unable to finish both of his 100-yard outings - Dec. 5 against San Francisco and Dec. 27 against Philadelphia - after banging his knee hard on the AstroTurf at the Edward Jones Dome. Concerns about the knee were also behind his failure to play Dec. 19, and were at least partially behind Martz's bizarre explanation that he was unaware that Jackson didn't play in the game.
"We all know, the organization knows, that I was never fully healthy last year," Jackson said. "Last year, I had to play through a lot of different things. It was just the name of the game. When you think of the NFL, you think of the toughness of players. And it was something I had to endure my first year, unfortunately. But I made it through."
By doing so, Jackson thinks he proved a point about his toughness.
"He didn't realize that he was missing a little strength in that knee," Martz said. "That thing tested out somewhere around 70 percent (full strength) when he came in. That's hard to overcome, and still try to get into the season and learn stuff."
Jackson underwent cleanup surgery on the knee following the 2003 college season, as well as after his 2004 rookie season with the Rams. But the difference in how his knee feels now, and how it did a year ago, is night and day.
"Actually, the surgery was the same thing, but what people don't understand is that when you're an NFL rookie, you have to do a lot of tryouts and combines and things like that," Jackson said.
Jackson never had a chance to properly rest and rehab the knee because he was getting ready for the draft.
"This year, all I had to do is take it slow and just rehab properly," he said. "I didn't get to do (that) a year ago."
The new, softer, FieldTurf in the Dome will help Jackson's knee this year, and on into the future. But Montgomery continues to harp on the need to be durable.
"You've got to go through a whole season showing that you can be the guy," Montgomery said. "That you can come back from the nicks, and you can perform at a high level the following week. That's the true measure.
"If he can carry the ball 20-some odd times the one week, and be very productive, and come back the next week and still can handle those kinds of carries, and be productive - now, you're on your way, kid. Don't give me 25 carries this week, and then I find you in the training room all next week and can't get anything out of you."
Jackson can't wait to take on that workload, can't wait to show he can do it week in week out.
"Actually, I can't wait for Sept. 11," Jackson said, referring to the season opener in San Francisco. "There's going to be some good things, and there's going to be some bright things that happen for me. I can see it. I can feel it."
The wait is almost over.
Reporter Jim Thomas
I think I have to change my name to Steven1 LOL , well not yet. I like Jackson he is a stand up guy! Going to make the Rams shine, and make Torry huge this year:clanram:"Championship's are won with defense" :angryram: