Rams Face Tough Challenge in Familiar Foe

Posted Sep 11, 2013

James Laurinaitis has lined up across from RB Steven Jackson literally thousands of times during the middle linebacker’s five professional seasons, but on Sunday he’ll do something to Jackson that was previously prohibited.

“You never hit Jack in practice,” Laurinaitis said. “That was a fireable offense. It’ll be different.”

Laurinaitis and his teammates will stand on the opposite sideline of Jackson when the Rams visit the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Jackson played 131 career games with the Rams, and his second contest as a member of the Falcons comes against the team for which he gained 10,135 rushing yards over a nine-year span.

“It’ll be a huge challenge,” Laurinaitis said. “I have a lot of respect for Steven and what he’s done. He’s run extremely hard for a lot of years in this league. Looking back on his career, personally I don’t think he’s gotten as much credit as he’s deserved. He looked sharp last week. He still has that ability to break the big runs and he easily runs through arm tackles. He looks good.”

In his Falcons debut, Jackson rushed for 77 yards on just 11 carries and caught five passes for 45 yards. While he may be wearing a different color, Jackson’s former teammates see a player who remains at the top of his game.

“He’s as good as there is in our league,” DE Chris Long said. “I think he’s up there with those guys at the top. I think he’ll be hungry and they’ll feed him the ball a lot. We’ve got to find a way to be gap-sound and try to slow him down.”

Jackson’s Rams resume speaks for itself. He’s the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and ranks second to Isaac Bruce in scrimmage yards and all-purpose yards in team history. He’s one of just six players in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in eight or more consecutive seasons. Jackson’s teammates voted him Rams MVP in each of the last four seasons.

Each of his teammates fondly remember the way Jackson led by both word and deed, even in difficult times. When QB Sam Bradford arrived in St. Louis in 2010, he did so amongst circumstances that could have presented challenges for someone with the credentials of his ilk.  The Heisman Trophy winner and top overall pick understood that as a quarterback, his position on the field required him to be vocal and set an example, but he was also conscious of his status as a rookie, which meant he was best served to follow the lead of others at times.

“I think the greatest thing for me when I first got here was that Steven was here,” Bradford said. “He was such a great leader, not only for the offense, but for the team. That gave me someone to learn from and to look up to. I just tried to watch Steven and watch the way that he handled things. He was really able to kind of help me in things that he saw, so having ‘Jack’ here was really invaluable for me.”

Although he went from a team that featured the NFL’s youngest roster to one that is chocked full of veterans, Jackson’s approach hasn’t changed much.

“Right from the very beginning, he got involved with our offseason program,” Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said. “He’s got a great work ethic in terms of weight training, and working with our athletic performance staff. He’s fit in very well and he’s a guy that’s had a lot of success, some of our young players definitely look to him for leadership. I think his work ethic will attest to how much of a leader he is. I’m sure he was that way in St. Louis and he’s that way here.”

During a conference call with St. Louis media Wednesday, Jackson said Sunday will be a little emotional, but he’s well aware of the fact that he’ll have to keep those personal feelings in check.

“I’d be lying to say I don’t want to get the win,” Jackson said. “Of course I want to get the win, but I have to come out there and just remain in the zone, in my focus and not get too up. When you allow emotions to take over, your wind becomes short, you’re not even thinking, you’re not on you’re A-game. So, I have to remind myself to stay in control, have the intensity that I normally play with, but dial-in and treat this game as if it’s one that I’m preparing and I have done over the years.”

Jackson said that he misses his St. Louis teammates as well as many members of the Rams’ support staff with whom he developed strong friendships with over the years. In today’s NFL, it’s not uncommon for superstars to change teams late in their career. Jackson joins the likes of Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson who also did just that, but he does so with no hard feelings.

“When two parties go separate ways, there’s always going to be somewhat of a sour taste in one or both parties’ mouths,” Jackson said. “But I think this one, we handled it as professionally as possible and I can only thank the ownership for that.”

Said Rams Coach Jeff Fisher, “We felt like it was in the best interest of everybody involved. “This way the story ends real good. You’d like to think certainly his jersey’s retired back here whenever he’s done. We just wish him the best. He’s a class guy and was a tremendous leader in the locker room last year.”

Jackson still keeps in touch with several of his former teammates. He and Long exchanged messages throughout the offseason, but both players realize everything will be different with the official places the ball on the tee Sunday at noon.

“He’s a good friend, but you play good friends throughout the year in this game,” Long said. “When that happens, you put that in the background and play football. Then you shake hands after the game and move on.”