Monday, August 14, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

From the first day Scott Linehan arrived in St. Louis as the new head coach of the Rams, he acknowledged that the high wire act that was the Greatest Show on Turf was probably going to go dark and be replaced by a different, more balanced performance.

If Thursday night’s 19-17 win against Indianapolis in the preseason opener was any indication, Linehan’s offense is headed for the type of balance that hasn’t been seen in some time.

Of course, nobody is happier to see the new balanced approach than running back Steven Jackson. Jackson got the ball on the first play of the Linehan era and burst up the middle for a 16-yard gain. By the time he was done, he had 41 yards on five carries.

“I wouldn’t say drive the ‘Train’ around here,” Jackson said. “I think it’s going to be a 50/50 or 60/40 approach to the game. Some days the running game may not start off how we would like it to. So we’re going to have to use the pass to open up the run. Some guys may approach the game and want to stack eight guys in the box against us. I think (Linehan) is just making it a point to speed up the running game to catch up with our passing game.”

No matter what the Colts tried defensively in the preseason opener, the Rams had little problem moving the ball on the ground. By the time the game was done, Linehan had called 40 run plays and those plays had resulted in 202 rushing yards, for an average of 5.1 yards per attempt.

Jackson has made no bones in the past about his desire to get more touches, but now that it seems to be happening, he is running with the excitement of an eager rookie. On his 23-yard jaunt in the first quarter, Jackson lowered his pads, plowed through a hole and then took on a defender head first at full speed. It’s that kind of physical running that Linehan is trying to instill in his offense.

“I think offensively we’re making great strides and improving our running game,” Jackson said. “Coach has continued to use Torry (Holt) and the receivers as an explosive package so I think we’re making great strides.”

And, when Jackson says we, he means the entire running back group. The addition of Moe Williams as short yardage and goal line threats has complemented the versatility of Tony Fisher, who has been one of the camp’s biggest surprises.

Fisher has showed surprising burst and elusiveness in camp and continued his strong preseason performance with a five-carry, 33-yard effort against the Colts with a touchdown mixed in.

Make no mistake, the Rams were capable of running the ball well during the Greatest Show on Turf era, but that kind of slashing style is not the hallmark of this style of running game.

“This running game is kind of a physical running game,” Fisher said. “With (running backs) coach (Wayne) Moses and Coach Linehan, they want physical backs. They want us to be able to go downhill and run between the tackles.”

In the effort to get those running backs playing physical and working between the tackles, Linehan’s offense clearly has wrinkles built in to optimize running success. The Rams had a number of formations with a tight end and a fullback or two tight ends against the Colts.

That’s why Linehan has put an emphasis on his tight ends being capable blockers.

“If we want to be able to run the ball and have that balance, our tight ends are going to have to be blockers attitude-wise first,” Linehan said. “When people come up and try to stop the run, then it’s easier to get the tight ends the ball in the passing game.”

For fans of the long passes and big plays in the passing game, don’t worry. There is still plenty of that to go around, but Williams said the Linehan system won’t put a number or percentage on any play calling situation.

“The system is built on taking whatever is given to us,” Williams said. “If they come in here and decide we are not going to run the ball on them then we will pass it. If they decide we are not going to pass the ball on them, we will run it. That’s the system.”

Although there is plenty of room for interpretation on just how much Linehan and the Rams will throw, it was clear Thursday night that it didn’t hurt to get the ball moving on the ground, at least at first.

“It certainly makes you feel like you are in a lot more rhythm and better about what you are doing on a consistent basis when you feel like you can go to your running game,” Linehan said.