The pregame butterflies, the competitive fire, the 60 minutes of emotion—it all came flooding back for Steven Jackson as he made his return to the football field for the New England Patriots on Sunday.
S-Jax was eased back into action for the first time during the 2015-16 season, garnering 15 yards on seven carries. After a 26-20 overtime loss to the New York Jets, he said he felt strong in his debut, though he wished his new squad could've pulled out its 13th victory of the season.
"It felt good," SJ39 said. "That first half of football, just trying to get back in the rhythm of things, making sure I was up to speed, not only physically but mentally as well. It felt good. Just unfortunate that we couldn't pull it off and make the whole thing very rewarding."
Steven joined the Pats on the practice field for the first time on Tuesday, leaving little time for acclimation into his new world. He admitted after the game that it made for an emotional debut on the road in East Rutherford, N.J. But he also added that he was able to keep himself grounded and putting out maximum effort.
"It's very high in emotion, so you want to make sure you're up to speed with your teammates and you're competing at a high level to help put your team in the best position to win," SJ said. "You've got to make sure you're within yourself, you're playing within yourself. And (with) a team like this, that's all I have to do is make sure I play football to the best of my ability."
The incumbent Brandon Bolden got the starting nod for New England, and Steven's first carry came early in the second quarter. Keshawn Martin notched a six-yard carry on the first play of the drive, and No. 39 was called next. S-Jax blasted his way up the middle through a tackle for five yards and a first down.
Steven had a two-yard carry later on in the drive to set up a 3rd-and-3, but the Pats couldn't convert, so they settled for a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal to tie it up at three.
"It happened so fast, I don't really remember it," Jackson said of his debut. "But it definitely felt good that I was able to see things out. It didn't happen too fast. I was able to read things. That was the most important thing."
The Jets responded on the following drive, when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick capped an 80-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown completion to Brandon Marshall. The home team led 10-3 going into the half.
It was a rough day overall for the New England offense, which struggled to move the ball against a tough New York defense. The Pats had just 284 total yards and struggled on the ground as a whole. Bolden didn't manage much more than Steven, totaling 30 yards on nine attempts.
As a team, the Patriots averaged just 2.9 yards per carry, and the circumstances in the second half took the running game out of the equation. Tom Brady was intercepted by Darrelle Revis on the first drive of the second half, and the Jets took advantage. Fitzpatrick hit Marshall for another touchdown, making it 17-3.
New England responded with three points on its next drive, and after that, the defense lent a helping hand. Jamie Collins scooped up a Fitzpatrick fumble and took it to the house, putting the Pats right back in it at 17-13.
New York extended it to a seven-point lead, which is where the gap remained throughout most of the fourth quarter. Then in the closing minutes of the game came perhaps the most promising minutes for No. 39 going forward.
On their final drive, the Patriots leaned on S-Jax to help power them down the field. Steven was the featured back in crunch time, and had a seven-yard carry early in the drive. His runs helped to offset a strong aerial charge led by Brady and Rob Gronkowski. The drive ended with a nine-yard scoring reception by James White to tie it up and eventually force overtime.
Unfortunately, the extra session didn't last long. Fitzpatrick linked up with Quincy Enunwa and Marshall on long pass plays before finding Eric Decker in the end zone to give the Jets the 26-20 win.
“I think we have some mental toughness,” Brady said. “A lot of guys have been in and out of the lineup, a lot of guys coming in off the street trying to play and help us win. We just had some bad luck, truthfully. I don’t think we’ve ever used those excuses, and we had opportunities to win this game. Hopefully we can get healthy and we’ve just got to win one game next week.”
Steven came away disappointed in the final result, though the Pats (12-3) remain in an enviable position. They've already clinched the division and a first-round bye in the postseason—which should provide invaluable practice time for SJ and Co.
With a win next week against the Miami Dolphins (5-10), they'll lock up home-field advantage for the playoffs.
Individually, SJ39 said after his New England debut that he felt physically strong and healthy, and that he'll look to build on that performance in Week 17 against the Fins.
“The body feels good,” Jackson said. “Get used to getting hit again, that was the main thing. Make sure I'm running through the tackles, getting my shoulder pads down and being in football position, which I haven't been in a while…Now it's just to build off what I have done today.”
Kickoff for the regular season finale is set for 1 p.m. ET from Sun Life Stadium and will be broadcast on CBS.
- Steven Jackson eases into Patriots’ RB mix as offense struggles overall in first half (ESPN, Dec. 27, 2015)
- Steven Jackson on Patriots debut: Game wasn’t moving too fast (MassLive, Dec. 27, 2015)
- Steven Jackson looking to build off Patriots debut (247 Sports, Dec. 27, 2015)
- Press Pass: Patriots reflect on loss to Jets (Patriots.com, Dec. 27, 2015)
- Patriots struggle on offense, but not all is lost (Boston Globe, Dec. 27, 2015)