As losses often do, the last seven weeks had been eating at Steven Jackson.
He couldn't shake the feeling that something needed to be done, something needed to be said. That feeling resulted in a mostly sleepless night for the Rams running back on Saturday, just hours before Sunday's game with the New Orleans Saints.
"I was tossing and turning because I want better," he said. "I want better for this team. I want better for this city."
So while many slept, SJ39 racked his brain for answers to what had plagued the 0-6 Rams and how they could start a turnaround on Sunday.
"There was just something resonating in me," he said. "I was just asking myself and praying, to be honest with you, about what I can say to inspire this team to play 60 minutes of good football."
The answers that Steven found on a sleepless Saturday night awoke the Rams from their own slumber to pull out their first win of the season. S-Jax delivered a rousing pregame speech, then went out and backed it up, rushing for a season-high 159 yards and two big touchdowns as the Rams defeated the Saints 31-21 at the Edward Jones Dome is St. Louis.
After the game, No. 39 was asked about his pregame motivational methods and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch what he said to the team.
"Pretty much all I said was if you've ever been in a fight and you've ever been hit with a punch, you only have two decisions," Jackson said. "Either run from the person, the opponent. Or you just dig deep inside and find the will to keep swinging and keep fighting."
The speech pumped up his team, but words can only do so much. So on the first drive of the game, Steven motivated with his actions, gaining all 26 yards the Rams accumulated on the opening drive. Both teams went several trips without a score, but Steven kept pounding away at the heart of the New Orleans defense and sapping their will to stop him, bit-by-bit. On the Rams' first three drives, SJ39 actually gained more yards (40) than the Rams had total yards (37).
St. Louis finally broke through on drive number four, using 14 plays to go 84 yards. The drive culminated in a Josh Brown field goal to give St. Louis a 3-0 lead. On the 14-play jaunt, Steven rushed three times for 28 yards and also caught a pass for seven yards.
The Rams held their three-point lead until late in the quarter when a punt block by first round draft pick Robert Quinn placed them in the red zone for the first time all-day. But it was two plays by Steven that made sure St. Louis took advantage of the opportunity.
On first down at the New Orleans 15, A.J. Feeley hit receiver Greg Salas on a slant that Salas took toward the end zone. As the rookie receiver made a last ditch effort for the goal line, he lost control of the football. But as the ball came out, there was Steven to jump right on it at the three-yard line.
With the very next play, SJ got the call and scored his fourth touchdown of the season on an inside handoff from the fullback position. The three-yard run gave the Rams a 10-0 lead with 1:10 remaining in the first half. But they weren't done yet.
The first play of the ensuing Saints drive saw Drew Brees throw an errant pass that was picked off by Rams cornerback Josh Gordy. The interception gave the Rams the ball at the New Orleans 38 with 58 seconds left in the half and two timeouts. Eight plays later, St. Louis was celebrating again as Feeley found Brandon Lloyd for his first touchdown as a Ram. The eight-yard scoring strike put the Rams firmly in front, 17-0 at the half.
The Saints began the second half with the ball, but after a brief drive New Orleans punted, putting the Rams back on the attack.
The result was an 11-play, 72-yard drive that culminated in another three-yard scoring run by SJ39. Steven carried just four times and caught one pass on the drive, but had the play that made all the difference.
With St. Louis facing 4th and 2 from the New Orleans 35, SJ took a handoff from Feeley, got a few blocks from his line and sprinted through a hole on the left side of the field to move the chains. But a first down wasn't enough for No. 39 on this run. He galloped down the sideline and fought off tacklers before being wrestled out of bounds at the three. Two plays later he was in the end zone for the second time on the day and fifth this year.
"He's an elite player," Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. "You can't just put nine (men) in the box and say, 'Alright, you have to be strong.' There's enough skill on the outside and at quarterback to keep you from doing that."
After his second score, Steven walked along the Rams sideline with his helmet off and let out a yell. It was clear that he was releasing plenty of frustration on the Saints, but after the game he admitted that whom St. Louis was playing was irrelevant. The outcome of the game would have been the same no matter the outside factors.
"We had a mindset today that no matter who the other team was, we were going to kick the hell out of them,'' S-Jax told Sports Illustrated's Peter King. "I don't care who we played, the result was going to be the same.''
The touchdown gave the Rams a 24-0 lead early in the third and they seemed primed to pull away.
But over the next 11 minutes of game time, the Saints scored twice to get back in the game. With 10 minutes remaining St. Louis' once dominant 24-point lead was suddenly a tenuous 10 points.
As the Rams offense began to slow and penalties started to mount, No. 39 asserted himself as a leader once again, pleading with his teammates to stay in the game and not let it go. He did the same with the defense, imploring them to stiffen and stop the Saints.
They did just that when Darrien Stewart intercepted Brees and returned the pick 27 yards for a game-breaking score.
"Jack challenged us, and that's all we needed to hear," Stewart told the Belleville News-Democrat. "He challenged us to swing and make those punches effective, and we did."
New Orleans managed one more score on the day, but it wasn't nearly enough. One week after the St. Louis defense allowed Dallas to pile up 294 yards rushing, they limited the Saints to just 56 rush yards and New Orleans' offense as a whole to just 283 yards. In addition to stopping the run, the Rams also limited Saints quarterback Drew Brees to a season-low 269 passing yards. It was a stark turnaround from a performance in Dallas that Steven said embarrassed everyone.
"We as a team were embarrassed about it. The [defense] wanted to stop the bleeding, and I think they did that," he said. "The product we put out on the field last Sunday against Dallas is not what this team is made of. It is not what we've built here over the last three seasons with coach Spagnuolo and his staff. We wanted to go out and prove what people were saying, what people were trying to put on us as labels, that we're not that. We're a much better team. I think flat-out this was a team effort, this was a team win."
For his performance this week, Steven has been nominated as one of three finalists for the FedEx Ground Player of the Week.
With 159 rushing yards and two scores, SJ39 is a great candidate for the weekly award, which is selected by NFL fans. To watch highlights of Steven's big game, and vote him for the FedEx Ground Player of the Week, click here.
For the second straight week, SJ39 moved up the ranks of the all-time best at his position.
One week after jumping four runners to move into 35th on the NFL's all-time rushing list, SJ moved up another spot, passing Earnest Byner for 34th all-time. Steven has now rushed for 8,397 yards in his NFL career.
In addition to his move on the NFL list, SJ did some leaping on some Rams career lists. Already the franchise's all-time leading rusher, on Sunday Steven passed Marshall Faulk for third in yards from scrimmage in team history. S-Jax now has 11,150 yards from scrimmage in his career and trails only Isaac Bruce (14,259 yards) and Torry Holt (12,717).
Finally, with his two touchdowns on Sunday, SJ39 now sits fourth all-time in Rams history for touchdowns scored with 59, passing Eric Dickerson, who had 58. He trails Faulk (85) Bruce (84), Holt (74) on the list.