The 2012 NFL regular season winds down to a dramatic finish over the next two weeks and Steven Jackson and the St. Louis Rams still have goals they want to meet.
With two games remaining—at Tampa Bay followed by a divisional rematch at Seattle—Steven and the Rams still have a shot at finishing with a winning record. Steven was asked on Thursday how important that would be. His answer was simple, his focus evident.
“Haven’t done it yet,” he said. “Still means a lot to me.”
To get one step closer to that mark this week, the Rams will have to go through the Buccaneers team that was 6-4 a month ago, but has since gone into a tailspin with four straight losses. At 6-7-1, the Rams’ playoff chances have fizzled as well. But motivation still reverberates in the locker room to end the season with a sense of success.
“There’s no doubt. This team, it’s a whole new roster, a whole new team,” he said. “The excitement, the guys, it doesn’t feel like work. You hang out in the locker room with your buddies. Because of that, guys are gonna go out to play for each other, regardless of what may happen or what may transpire with the postseason. Guys are going to play these next two games all out.”
Digging deep over the next two weeks will be a necessity, both for victories and for Steven to reach the 1,000 yard rushing mark for an eighth straight season.
In an era of football where offenses air it out and backfields tend to split already reduced carries, Steven has been able to consistently grind out rushing yards in chunk after brutal chunk, working constantly at his craft and playing as if every carry is his last.
Steven took over as the Rams starting running back in 2005. Every season since, he has passed over the 1,000 mark with his signature style of power running. Heading into Tampa Bay, S-Jax is 91 yards shy of being only the sixth back in NFL history with eight consecutive 1,000 yard seasons.
Upon passing that mark, Steven will join lofty company. LaDainian Tomlinson accomplished the feat most recently, along with Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin, and Thurman Thomas. No. 39 has always maintained a nose-to-the-grindstone approach, but being able to look back on all the years of hard work paying off, he has every reason to be proud of his rare accomplishments.
“It’s not something I thought about for eight years. But as long as I was a starter, year in and year out, I wanted to be a thousand-yard rusher,” he said. “I didn’t realize so few have accomplished what I have possible to accomplish. It just means I’ve been consistent over time, been durable. That’s hard to do in this league.”
To say Steven’s consistency is difficult to match in this league is a gross understatement, but Steven’s persistent work ethic has driven him to an altogether exclusive level of greatness. Only a week ago against the Minnesota Vikings, Steven became the 27th player in league history to reach 10,000 career rushing yards. Even more impressive, he is only the 15th to gain 10,000 yards on only one team.
Steven has long been the face of the Rams franchise, and his teammates couldn’t be any happier to be represented by No. 39.
“It’s unbelievable to be able to say that you played with one of the guys that has reached this feat,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said.
Laurinaitis, typically reserved in his comments, bared all when he opened up about the career SJ39 has put together, and the lack of attention that a player—and person—like Steven truly deserves.
“I think it’s been a disservice all week,” he said. “I think that more national media haven’t been talking about his 10,000, especially in this day and age. Not only the fact that he’s a running back and running backs have a short life and all that, but the fact that it’s a passing league. You keep hearing that it’s a passing league now. But we’ve got somebody on our squad that’s done this impressively for a long time. And it’s an honor to be his teammate.”
Laurinaitis is far from the only teammate—and fan of SJ39—to feel that way. Offensive lineman Rodger Saffold is one of five guys responsible for winning the battle in the trenches, and knows to appreciate having a warrior like Steven behind him in the backfield. For guys like Saffold, Steven passing his milestones is a point of honor as a St. Louis Ram and a team effort.
“It’s very important,” Saffold said. “He’s done a great job. He’s battled time and time again, so we want to give it to him.”
But having another milestone day this week won’t be easy for SJ39. Although 91 yards may seem like a reasonable number, Tampa Bay boasts the NFL’s top rushing defense, allowing a scant 83 yards a game. Steven will have his work cut out for him against Tampa Bay’s stout front line, and has his eye on Bucs defensive tackles Roy Miller and Gerald McCoy.
But SJ’s hopes for Sunday are steadfast: a big game on the ground and—more importantly—another tally in the win column.
“I’m hoping we come out with a win. They have one of the best defenses. I’m pretty sure they’re well aware of what’s ahead for me,” he said. “Their defensive tackles, they’re very disruptive. They use swim moves on first and second down, they get in the backfield and mess up the flow of the back. The defensive line overall, they do a lot of line stunts. They don’t just stay true, just gap read it out. They make the offensive like just pass read off of block, which can be really hard when you’re an aggressive run team.”
It’s been hard for a number of standout backs to find any daylight against the Bucs. Guys like DeMarco Murray of the Cowboys and Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs were stuffed early and often, gaining only 38 and 40 yards against Tampa, respectively.
There have been others who have found ways to break through. Only last week, the Bucs gave up 149 yards on the ground to Mark Ingram and the Saints, Tampa Bay’s second-worst run defensive performance of the season.
If previous games have been any indication, the Rams will find success if they can establish the play action early and force the Bucs to focus on SJ39. Tampa Bay ranks last in the NFL against the pass, but establishing the run will still be critical in knocking the Bucs defense off balance.
“I’m expecting a very emotional, tough, physical game out of them,” he said of the Bucs. “And hopefully we can continue to keep the defense honest and have a balanced attack in the run and the pass and be productive on offense.”
Steven knows that a key to coming away with a road win will be building momentum early and maintaining a strong lead. These are areas the Rams have not quite excelled in as the season has progressed, but with such a young team still growing into their own, hope abounds that the Rams will continue to make positive strides.
“We gotta figure that out,” Steven said, referring to starting the game off strong. “Midpoint in the season, we had a run of about three or four games where we scored in the first possession of the game and second half. So we gotta get the consistency of that, as well as finishing strong in the fourth quarter, bringing that together. We haven’t done that yet. We still have two opportunities to do so. Hopefully we do it this week.”
In a recent conference call, Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano spoke at length about having to face a running back like Steven Jackson.
“The thing that I see… I haven’t been in this league that long, so really, my exposure to Steven Jackson has been just being a fan whenever I could catch a game. But, in studying him now, he’s such a big, explosive player and he runs with an attitude and he has such good short area quickness.”
Those facets of Steven’s game are certainly key attributes that have separated him from other backs in the league. Schiano continued to expound on the vision and football smarts S-Jax has honed over the years—a veteran expert at his trade.
“When he sees something – and he’s got great vision – so when he sees something, he has the ability to get there in a hurry,” Schiano said. “When he senses a little daylight on the back side of a run, there’s not a lot of backs that can make some of the cuts that he makes. Usually, those are smaller guys that do that. But being as big as he is and being able to do that, I think he finds himself, often times, on linebackers and DBs that are not in position to make a tackle, and then he’s got a tremendous stiff arm. So, those things allow him to be a really, really productive back and that’s an understatement, of course, with what he just did last weekend with the record.”
Steven’s position among the all-time greats to play his position is a compliment he accepts with sincere humility. While individual achievements and well-deserved accolades abound for Steven, the team successes are always first and foremost, after all, SJ39 has been in a similar position heading to Tampa Bay before.
At Raymond James Stadium in 2010, Steven broke Eric Dickerson’s record as the Rams’ top all-time rusher, but the Rams lost the game, putting a damper on his accomplishment. Steven makes only his third trip to Tampa when he suits up for Sunday’s game. In each of the previous contests, Steven broke the century mark on the ground but the Rams lost. He’d be happy to keep the former streak going, while ending the latter skid on Sunday.
Sunday’s kickoff is scheduled for Noon CST and the game can be seen on FOX.
- Laurinaitis: Jackson deserves more national attention (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 20, 2012)
- Another milestone in sight for Jackson (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 21, 2012)
- Conference Call: Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano (StLouisRams.com, December 19, 2012)
- Steven Jackson Press Conference (StLouisRams.com, December 20, 2012)