Thursday, September 21, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

When Steven Jackson wakes up on Monday morning, he is always sore. But this year, it’s a good kind of sore as Jackson’s workload has increased to a level that has placed him third in the league in rushing.

“It feels pretty good,” Jackson said. “I’m fully aware that it’s only week two, so hopefully we can keep making strides and keep ourselves paced through it. This league is a marathon, not a race.”

While there’s no doubting that Jackson has a long way to go in the NFL’s version of a marathon, there are signs that his good start out of the blocks could keep pace over the course of an entire season.

After two games, Jackson has run with the combination of power and speed he flashed in his first two seasons in the league. As the game goes on, he gets stronger and he is finishing runs with more authority than in years past.

“He's certainly one of those type backs, a big punishing type runner and they're harder to tackle if you're able to establish a running game as the game goes on,” head coach Scott Linehan said. “They tend to wear you down a little bit because it's a big guy to tackle.”

Jackson’s punishing style has him third in the NFL and second in the NFC in rushing yards with 224 on just 44 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. And though his longest run of the season was a 37-yard scamper in the season opener against Denver, Jackson has showed more consistency than in his first two seasons.

In the win against the Broncos, he rushed six times for 67 yards in the fourth quarter. Even with the Rams trailing in the loss to San Francisco, Jackson punished the ***** late in the game, carrying four times for 27 yards.

It’s that type of punishing style that has placed Jackson behind only Cincinnati’s Rudi Johnson and Atlanta’s Warrick Dunn in the early race for the rushing title.

“A lot goes on through the course of the game,” Jackson said. “Average fans don’t realize. You have to have a feel for what the defense is trying to do. Also, you try to wear them down. Coach is calling the plays to see what they are going to do and what formations (they might use) so as the course of the game goes on , I get a feel of what they are doing and I believe the offensive line does, too. With that being said, that’s how I get my big yards later in the game.”

So, what exactly is it that has allowed Jackson to get off to such a good start? Actually, there are a number of reasons for his early-season success.

One of those stems from the move of hiring Linehan as the head coach. Upon his arrival, Linehan vowed to give the Rams a more balanced attack with Jackson as the featured attraction.

In his first two seasons in the league, Jackson had times where he would lose yards as he searched for holes to run through. Jackson says he would look to break a big run every time in hopes that it would guarantee an increased workload.

“I think I have the comfort level in knowing that if I don’t get a big gain , I am going to get the ball again,” Jackson said. “Sometimes in previous years I would look for the big gain a lot and sometimes that hurt us. Now, I can stay consistent with my run reads and know that coach is going to give me another chance.”

Jackson is getting 22 carries a game through two games, up from about 17 last season. In addition to the added touches, Jackson is spending more quality time with his offensive line.

That additional time studying and understanding what his linemen are doing on every play has allowed Jackson to have a better feel for where everyone will be on a given play.

“We study with the offensive line and running backs together,” Jackson said. “(We look at) run calls and different reads they are going to make up front so I actually know what things mean now this year. Last year, if the offensive line would make a call, nine times out of 10, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I think that has helped a lot for us to be in the same room and get communication of what’s going on.”

And though Jackson hasn’t scored a touchdown yet this season, he also hasn’t given the ball up yet, either.

“I'm pleased with that and I'm pleased with his ball security,” Linehan said. “He's had two straight games in the 20s (carries-wise), which is a good number for him. People have been going at that ball pretty good and so far so good, knock on wood. That's been a big emphasis certainly for our offense. He's done a really nice job as well as coming up with some nice runs.”

The first pair of games of the season has given Jackson a chance to measure himself against some quality running backs. He enjoys the chance to prove himself on the same field as some of the league’s top backs and will get a prime opportunity to do so this week against Arizona’s Edgerrin James.

Jackson says he enjoys watching James because he isn’t flashy and just finds a way to move the chains and pick up yards, something Jackson is working to do on a consistent basis.

“It gives me extra incentive not only to run hard, but to make a statement in the league,” Jackson said. “If you are putting up big numbers or you have an impressive game like a guy like Edgerrin James would, I think some of the critics or guys that might not know about you would raise an eyebrow.”