Jackson's Versatility Adding To His Value
Saturday, December 2, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

It seems like just about every week the Rams defense has been forced to deal with one of the league’s top running backs. The superstar running back galaxy of LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson has marked the schedule.

Even on weeks when the Rams looked like they were getting a break, they faced a developing star such as San Francisco’s Frank Gore, who has entered the stratosphere of the league’s top backs.

But, as the season goes on, there is one back that the St. Louis defense is rapidly gaining an appreciation for and they don’t have to go far to find him. Following last week’s tour de force of running and catching, running back Steven Jackson has asserted himself as one of the top running backs in the league.

In his third year in the league, Jackson is running harder than ever and seems to have matured and embraced all of the small things that go in to being a successful running back.

“He comes out with an attitude every week,” defensive end Leonard Little said. “I think he’s one of the best backs in the league. There are some great backs in the league, but I think he’s up there with the best of them.”

For those that haven’t seen him this season, the proof is in the numbers. Jackson is seventh in the NFL in rushing with 932 yards and six touchdowns. He ranks fourth in the league in total yards with 1,485 and is tied for seventh with teammates Torry Holt in receptions with 63.

It isn’t to say that Jackson hasn’t been good in his first two years in the league, but it’s safe to say he has taken his game to a different level this year. When Jackson declared for the NFL Draft as a junior out of Oregon State, nobody questioned his speed or power. His bruising running style made him a candidate for a first-round pick.

When draft day came, though, Jackson began to slide a bit because of a perceived lack of versatility. He caught 66 passes for 680 yards and six touchdowns as a Beaver, which should have helped him dispel any myths about his receiving ability.

Still, as a 6’2, 231-pound running back, Jackson was viewed more as a pure runner than an all-around back.

“I’m a big back so people assume I am just a downhill runner,” Jackson said. “It’s been good for me this year to show and display my receiving ability.”

This year, he is doing everything he can to change that perception.

Jackson put together a 13-catch, 133 receiving yard game against Kansas City on Nov. 5. Last week was perhaps Jackson’s finest performance of the season, rushing for 121 yards on 23 carries with nine catches for 71 yards.

Along the way, Jackson jokingly referred to himself as a “big” Marshall Faulk. Of course, having to follow in the footsteps of Faulk made Jackson’s task of proving himself all the more difficult, but it’s becoming clear that the comparison, though only a joke, isn’t terribly far-fetched.

“Jokingly, I said I’m a big Marshall Faulk, but to be honest with you I’ve been able to catch the ball,” Jackson said. “I just said that jokingly because for so long I’ve been having to live with that (tag). Hopefully, with this year we can get away from that and allow me to be Steven Jackson and allow people in the general public to see what I’m able to bring to this game.”

Plenty of people are starting to recognize that Jackson has become one of the focal points of the Rams offense. As recently as last season, Jackson took a backseat to the passing game which centered on receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. While Bruce and Holt are still vital parts of the offense, Jackson is at least on the same level and maybe has even become the centerpiece for the system brought in by coach Scott Linehan.

“I approached this year knowing that I was going to be the guy so I didn’t want to come out on third down so I had to make sure I was catching balls well,” Jackson said. “It has carried over throughout the season and I have been able to make some guys miss in the open field which has allowed me to get the yards in the receiving category.”

Although Jackson is having success, he is definitely receiving more attention than he has at any point in his young NFL career. Against Carolina on Nov. 19, Jackson was limited to 27 yards on seven carries, but a big reason for his limited success was the fact that the Panthers constantly had someone spying Jackson. Usually, that player was superstar defensive end Julius Peppers.

When teams haven’t been spying Jackson, they have been stacking the box with eight, sometimes even nine defenders to help slow him down or to force the Rams to scrap the running game altogether as they did against Carolina.

But Jackson has made it a point of improving as a runner so that he is capable of chipping away at teams stacked against the run. One such improvement has come courtesy of backup running back Stephen Davis.

At 6 foot, 230 pounds, Davis has a similar frame to Jackson and has helped him improve his running style. Jackson has had a tendency to run upright, which doesn’t allow him to square his shoulder pads up and take on tacklers or gain an extra yard or two in short yardage situations.

In addition to more film study and working with the offensive line on line calls, Davis has become the Ying Yang Twins for Jackson, helping him to get low.

“For a long time, even going back to last year, I’ve had a tendency to run high,” Jackson said. “Naturally, because I’m a tall back when they tell me to get low, I feel that I am low. This coaching staff is allowing me to see more film of myself and with Stephen Davis coming in, being a big back and being able to get his pads low, I was actually able to see what that meant and now I’m able to grasp the concept of getting my shoulder pads down.”

Enjoying a breakout season is one thing, but Jackson says he isn’t to where he would like to be as a complete back quite yet. He still would like to improve on his blitz pickups and recognition, but with each passing week, his game is becoming more well-rounded.

This week, Jackson has a chance to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and has a legitimate shot to reach 2,000 total yards for the season. Jackson has a number in mind he would like to finish with, but won’t reveal the exact number.

“In this day and age, 1,000 yards is not what it used to be,” Jackson said. “I have a number in my mind I want to reach. I’m hoping to eat up the yards and eat up the yards. When I hit the number I want, I promise I will let you know.”