Jackson, Run Game on a Roll

Posted Nov 10, 2011

On the heels of two straight dominant performances in the running game and with the Browns’ 30th-ranked run defense awaiting in Cleveland, it stands to reason that Rams running back Steven Jackson could go for the hat trick of 100-yard games this weekend.

Of course, Jackson knows that will be easier said than done because time and again in his career, he’s been asked about facing a team that’s struggled against the run and then seen that team throw everything it has at stopping him en route to its best run defense of the season.

“Story of my career,” Jackson said. “When certain teams come to town, certain players come to town, statistically those things don’t matter. I’m pretty sure that all week they’ve been game planning and knowing what they like to do, especially having (Head) Coach (Pat) Shurmur over there. He was personally with me for two years, so I’m pretty sure they’ll be up for the challenge and the test. I don’t look at 30th, being ranked 30th saying it’s going to be an easy Sunday. It’ll be a very challenging Sunday.”

The basic premise of Jackson’s thesis is that teams that have struggled against the run, when faced with a team that features the running game so prominently, will often do everything in its power to force the other part of the offense to beat it.

In this case, the Browns have struggled some against the run and have been outstanding against the pass (ranking first in the league). For their part, the Rams have been riding a healthy Jackson the past two weeks and he’s rewarded them with 289 yards and two touchdowns combined.

There’s little doubt that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the offense will again look to Jackson to carry the load this week and to setup quarterback Sam Bradford and the passing game for big plays.

“You want to keep it going because as the running game goes, I believe this team and this offense goes,” Jackson said. “We need to continue to be productive in that area. I think it will open up things, especially for Sam and the receivers which allows for us to have some big plays.”

So why, after the running game couldn’t quite get on track in the first part of the season, has it begun to take off?

The reasons are varied though it starts with Jackson getting back to full strength and being able to again take on a full workload.

After battling a quadriceps injury suffered on his season-opening 47-yard touchdown run, Jackson has been rounding back into form since the bye week.

Of course, it hasn’t hurt that the Rams have been able to stay in games and stuck to the run more since they haven’t had to play catch up as much.

“So far these last two weeks the games have been close, more opportunities to be honest with you,” Jackson said. “The more we can wear on a defense and the game is close or we’re in the lead, it allows for us to pound away at them. Eventually those 4-yard gains in the first quarter become big gashes later on in the game.”

That’s been one of the hallmarks of Jackson’s career. At his size, it’s not much fun to tackle Jackson when he has a full head of steam early in the game.

When the Rams are tied or winning, Jackson has rushed 66 times for 383 yards, an impressive average of 5.8 yards per carry.

But it’s even more difficult late when your tongue is hanging out. This year, Jackson is averaging 5.5 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, rushing 20 times for 110 yards. That sample size might be a bit small since the Rams haven’t had the lead or been close enough to keep running.

It does show, however, that when Jackson is able to wear down a defense, there are yards to be made in the game’s closing minutes.

“It’s certainly something that pretty much favors my running style and what I like to do,” Jackson said. “It also allows for us to take advantage of their eight-man boxes that we see a lot. The more you can wear them down on that it kind of makes the safety and those other guys filling in a little late getting there compared to the first quarter.”

Scheme wise, the success of the run game is also improving as McDaniels gets a better feel for where Jackson likes to get the ball and certain plays that seem to fit his style best.

Jackson is at his best running right up the middle or stretched to either sideline and the Rams have made more of a concerted effort to get him in those situations.

“I think the offensive coaches have done a good job with some schemes that we’ve used,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “The offensive line is blocking better in that department. I think we’ve called the game such that we’ve kind of kept people off balance. And certainly the guy running the football helps, too. He’s done a nice job.”

Jackson’s recent surge can only be viewed as a positive for the rest of the offense as it rounds into form in terms of health.

Bradford is battling back from an ankle injury and the cast of receivers seems to change every week. If Jackson can continue as the mainstay of the offense, it should help the whole unit find a rhythm for the second half of the season.

“It’s great when we get the running game going because it makes our play-action that much more effective,” Bradford said. “I think last week there were several times that we were able to take shots down the field because they were anticipating us running the football. I think it’s just a tribute to the guys up front. I think they’ve done a great job the past two weeks of knocking guys off the ball and creating some holes for ‘Jack.’ I think Jack’s done a great job of running extremely hard and finding those holes the past two weeks.”

Moving forward, Jackson is bearing down on yet another 1,000-yard season, which would be his seventh in a row. As it stands, Jackson is on pace for one of his most productive rushing seasons yet, averaging 5.1 yards per carry through the first eight game.

If Jackson holds that current pace, he’d set a new career high in that category. As he just seems to pick up steam as the season rolls on, don’t be surprised if the Rams continue to feed the beast.

“His performance and his leadership and his attitude and his energy have been incredible,” McDaniels said. “As many times as we can give him the ball and let him get going and light it up, that’s obviously been a big positive for us the past few weeks and we have got to continue to do that going forward.”