One quarter of the way into the 2009 NFL season, St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson is defying expectations and explanation.
In the process, he's closing in on regaining the title as the NFL's most productive running back.
Despite the Rams' woes, Steven is ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (Getty Images).
S-Jax is tied for fourth in the NFL with 367 yards rushing despite being a part of the NFL's 30th ranked offense.
He's gained 100 yards on the ground against teams that have held his peers, Adrian Peterson and Brandon Jacobs, to less than 60 yards. And he's done it all with a bruising style that inflicts as much pain on his opponents as it does himself.
WEEK 1: SEATTLE
"What would force us to put eight guys in the box is number 39 (Steven Jackson)," Seattle Seahawks coach Jim, Mora told reporters before the Rams played the Seahawks to open the season. "He is an outstanding runner, and Steve Spagnuolo has made it known that they want to play a power football game. They've got a runner in Steven Jackson that can do those things."
Mora packed the box and Steven rushed for 67 yards on just 16 carries. The total seems low at first glance, but Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte only managed 66 yards on five more carries in week three. One week later, the Indianapolis Colts barely eclipsed those numbers with two first round running backs. Joseph Addai and Donald Brown rushed for 79 combined yards on 21 carries.
WEEK 2: WASHINGTON
The Rams entered Week 2's contest with the Redskins still scoreless for the season.
Like the Seahawks, the Redskins also made no secret of who they would be game planning to stop that Sunday.
"They have one of the best backs in the business," Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache said prior to the game. "He is big, strong and fast and he can go the distance every time he touches the football. "If the hole is not there inside, he will bounce it outside. He can catch passes out of the backfield. I think this guy is a home-run hitting type of back."
But Steven would not be denied by the vaunted Redskins rush defense. No. 39 burst out for 104 yards on the ground in the St. Louis loss. The week prior, Washington had held New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs to just 46 yards.
In the weeks following, the Redskins allowed 101 yards rushing to Lions running back Kevin Smith. But Smith wasn't the only source of offense for his team and the Lions passing game supplemented his effort. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 21 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown to compliment Smith's rushing game.
In Week 4, the stingy 'Skins permitted just 77 yards to Tampa Bay Buccaneers rusher Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.
WEEK 3: GREEN BAY
St. Louis returned home with a 0-2 record and prepared to face yet another strong defensive team, the Green Bay Packers.
It was against Green Bay that Steven had his most impressive performance yet this season. No. 39 rushed for 117 yards and caught five passes for 46 yards, to also lead St. Louis in receiving. He did so with the Rams trailing for most of the game and starting quarterback Marc Bulger on the bench with an injury.
By comparison, Adrian Peterson faced the Packers in Week 4 and rushed for only 55 yards on two fewer carries. Peterson was also a non-factor in the Vikings passing game, catching one pass for no gain.
Green Bay linebacker Ryan Pickett was complimentary of Steven before the games:
"I think he's underrated; his team hasn't had a good record, so maybe that's (why). But he does everything (Peterson) does. He can cut it back on a dime. He starts fast. He's big, strong, powerful, hard to tackle. He's one of the better backs in the league to me."
The Packers also limited Matt Forte of the Bears to just 55 yards in week one.
WEEK 4: SAN FRANCISCO
Last week, the Rams returned to the road for the third time in their first four games for a divisional showdown with the 49ers.
The Rams were still without quarterback Marc Bulger, placing even more pressure on S-Jax to produce. In response, Steven rushed for 79 yards on 23 carries against the league's fourth ranked defense.
The same 49ers defense limited Peterson to just 85 rush yards the week before and is allowing only 73.8 yards rushing per game.
After the game, Steven gave credit to the 49ers for having such a stout defense.
"The 49ers did a really good job of containing the run, stopping the run, and making it really hard on us to get anything going. There was definitely a lot of guys in the box. Patrick Willis made plays like we expected him to make plays. It's no surprise. Every team's going to (stack the box) until we find a way to put points on the board. So we've just got to fight it."
CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE
Despite strong performances in each of his first four games, Steven still hasn't garnered much recognition for his performance, and has yet to rush for a touchdown. The Rams have only three touchdowns this season as a team.
At his current pace, Steven would finish the season with nearly 1,500 yards rushing (1,468), a feat he has not accomplished since his pro bowl season of 2006. He's doing so on a team with an unsettled quarterback situation and without a star receiver. He's also succeeded this season as a lone back in a league filled with two and three back systems and behind an offensive line that features a rookie and not a single all-pro, but does lead the league in penalties.
But for all the statistical success he is having, Steven remains focused on a single goal: returning the Rams to greatness. As quoted by Nick Wagoner of StLouisRams.com:
"You have to continue to work on your craft; you have to remain consistent even when everything around you is not consistent. That's what I do day in and day out. That's how I am treating the rest of my career. When the General manager and the head coach look at the team, I want them to say '39; we know we can get this out of him.'"
To know Steven's motivation, one must harken back to his youth and a poem that he wrote at the age of 10. NFL reporter Michael Smith cited the verse in a pre-draft column before the Rams selected Steven in the 2004 draft:
"I am a NFL running back/ I wonder if I will be great/ I hear the crowd cheer/ I see me scoring a touchdown/ I want a Super Bowl ring/ I pretend I'm a great running back/ I feel like I'm a star/ I touch the first place trophy/ I worry we won't win/ I cry if I fell/ I am a NFL running back/ I understand some will [be] greater/ I say what I mean/ I dream to be the greatest/ I try to be the best/ I hope I'll be remembered as one of the greatest/ I am a NFL running back."
For more on Steven's growth as a leader with the Rams, read "Learning to Lead: The Evolution of Steven Jackson" at The Rams' official website.
Mr. Illegal Formation symbolizes the Rams (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 5, 2009)
Run defense looks to rebound vs. Rams' Jackson (Green Bay Press-Gazette, September 24, 2009)
Jackson ready for next chapter (The Boston Globe, April 18, 2004)
Rams' Steven Jackson at the center of the St. Louis' attempts at offensive revival (The Oregonian, Sept 9, 2009)
Rams hope to crank up ground game (Belleville New-Democrat, September 18, 2009)