Jackson flourishes in new system in St. Louis
Updated: Oct. 26, 2006, 2:42 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham
Somebody else should be exiting the elevator. Not this guy. Not someone showered, braided, shaved, and bruise-free. He should be packaged like the power back he is -- square, menacing, muscular and well-fed. He should be a brute wearing the evidence of brutality, the cuts, swellings and scars that would deter anyone who might consider messing with him.
But Steven Jackson, in Manhattan for some shopping on an off day in October, strides through the lobby of the W Hotel looking a lot like the models lounging there. A power back shouldn't be so groomed, so put together. He shouldn't be such a, you know, pretty boy. But what with the dreads, the designer threads and the aesthetic uniform touches -- he'll occasionally forgo the protection of hightops for more fashionable lowtops -- Jackson is the first NFLer to bring glamour to a position that's been long on nicknames ("Ironhead," "The Bus") but short on sex appeal.
After all, Jackson is -- at 6'2'' and 240 pounds, with a 4.4 40 and 5 percent body fat -- a power back for the 21st century. And he's finally being used as one. Heading into the Rams' Week 7 bye, Jackson was second in the NFL in rushing and first in yards from scrimmage.
Every season, there are players whose games are mysteriously elevated, subs and busts who suddenly find themselves amongst the NFL's stat leaders. The catalyst is a system change -- a new head coach, a new coordinator, a new location. Think Steve Young with the Bucs vs. Steve Young with the *****. Or think David Carr under new coach Gary Kubiak. Carr, whose QB rating for the first four years of his career was 73.7, has hovered near the top of the charts in that category this season. And Alex Smith, now under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, has thrown eight TDs and four picks, compared to one and 11 last season.
Before Scott Linehan took over the Rams this past January, Jackson was miscast in St. Louis. It was hard for anyone to understand why then-Rams coach Mike Martz traded up to make Jackson the first running back chosen in the 2004 draft. With Martz calling the plays, the Rams had set a record for most points and yards in a three-year span (1999-2001) by featuring Marshall Faulk, an elusive dancer who could catch as well, if not better, than he could run. Although Faulk was starting to show his age, Jackson was hardly the obvious heir apparent. He was a pounder who averaged less than two receptions a game in three seasons at Oregon State.
Martz's zone-blocking plays included stretch-style runs, similar to the Broncos and Colts schemes, where the back heads outside the hash marks before turning upfield. But Jackson is at his best -- and his fastest -- running straight ahead, plowing over whomever might be in his way. Despite flashes of promise, it was obvious from the start that he didn't have a clear role in the Greatest Show on Turf. It didn't help that Faulk, who publicly pronounced himself a mentor to Jackson, was privately frosty. Jackson, his locker a few feet away from Faulk's, would grumble under his breath when he heard the future Hall of Famer tell reporters that the rookie was his protege. But when the mics turned his way, the new kid went along with the charade. "Sometimes you have to lie," Jackson says now. "Our relationship wasn't that great. But I couldn't be honest at the time." Faulk, unofficially retired and working for the NFL Network, admits the situation was "awkward."
Even when Jackson supplanted Faulk as the starter in 2005, his play, like that of the Rams, was inconsistent. During the first five weeks of the season, when Martz was calling the shots, Jackson didn't have a single game with 20 carries. At mid-season, when a heart condition sidelined Martz and Marc Bulger's season ended with a shoulder injury, Jackson assumed that his workload would increase. But the Rams passed on 61 percent of their plays, and Jackson's 1,046 yards were tempered by his league-leading 47 carries for negative yardage. With spread formations, injuries to three starting linemen and frequent deficits, few holes were opened, leaving Jackson as a power back too tentative to run with power. "He ran straight up," says Torry Holt. "I kept telling him, you've gotta get your pads down."
Steven Jackson has 521 yards on 133 carries this season. When Linehan met with Jackson after being hired, he told his tailback to expect 20 to 25 carries a game. Jackson was skeptical -- he'd heard the same thing from Martz. But Linehan, whose system relies on power blocking out of more base personnel sets and fewer three- and four-receiver formations, did have credibility. The Vikings finished in the top five in rushing twice during his three years as Minnesota's offensive coordinator. And as the Dolphins coordinator in 2005, Linehan oversaw a rushing game that jumped from 31st in 2004 to 12th. So Jackson decided to come to camp in the best shape of his career. He worked out with Holt in St. Louis, running routes for hours before hitting the treadmill until he was dizzy, then visiting a massage therapist twice a week to recover. When Jackson realized in training camp that Linehan would do what he'd promised, the back felt challenged. "I knew I had to prove I was the guy," he says.
Linehan's methods have made it easier, too. Under Martz, the offensive line and running backs held separate position meetings. Now they meet together. Jackson spends less time trying to memorize Martz's 700-page playbook and more time talking with his blockers to make sure everyone's on the same page. And despite both Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace and center Andy McCollum missing time with injuries, Jackson has had at least 20 carries in every game. Of those, 77 percent have been between the tackles, up from 71 percent last season. Says Linehan: "We fit our running game around what he does well."
Instead of trying to string out the defense, as he did in Martz's system, Jackson is cutting back sooner, inside the hashes, which exploits over-aggressive 4-3 defenses. Two new plays have helped Jackson pile up big numbers: the inside-zone run and the lead draw. With the Rams up 18-10 in the fourth quarter against the Broncos on Sept. 10, Jackson carried right, planning to run behind right tackle Alex Barron. But he cut back left as soon as Al Wilson and D.J. Williams overpursued, resulting in a 37-yard run that sealed the game. Against the Packers on Oct. 8, Jackson ran a lead draw, barreling through two tacklers and dragging Charles Woodson, who was clutching Jackson's facemask, for a 14-yard gain. "I've played 11 years," says Stephen Davis, Jackson's backup. "I've never seen a guy break as many tackles."
Or someone as focused on how he looks when doing so. At a recent practice, every Ram wore white socks and gray short sleeves save for one. Jackson wore blue socks and and a white long-sleeved shirt, by his own admission because he wanted to stand out. And in two-plus NFL seasons, he has yet to wear the same uniform combo twice. The color of his mouthpiece, wristband or shoes are always different. Makes sense, since Jackson has 30 tailored suits, at $3,000 a pop. "I love fashion, I love clothes," the 23-year-old says. "If I have the chance to model, I want to do it."
Two nights after his trip to New York, Jackson is in the St. Louis suburbs, sitting at a table in La Salsa, a restaurant where he broadcasts his weekly radio show. A line of fans waiting for his autograph snakes to the door. He signs the typical array of photos, hats, shirts and footballs before an older man reaches into a bag and drops a pair of scuffed blue-and-gold cleats on the table. "These are my shoes!" Jackson says. "How did you know they were mine?"
Easy. They're low tops.
Re: Jackson flourishes in new system in St. Louis
Great article....here's two of my favorite highlights:
"I've played 11 years," says Stephen Davis, Jackson's backup. "I've never seen a guy break as many tackles."
"Linehan's methods have made it easier, too. Under Martz, the offensive line and running backs held separate position meetings. Now they meet together. Jackson spends less time trying to memorize Martz's 700-page playbook and more time talking with his blockers to make sure everyone's on the same page."