On the heels of one of the most impassioned performances of his career last week against the New Orleans Saints, Steven Jackson was ready to put the Rams on his back again on Sunday in Arizona.
St. Louis fed Steven the ball and he ate up yards, 112 to be exact, on 27 carries in regulation. The last of those, an eight-yard run, pushed the Rams well into field goal range at the 24-yard line with four seconds remaining in the game. The stage was set for kicker Josh Brown to send the Rams home with another win, but the field goal was blocked.
St. Louis lost the game in overtime, where SJ39 carried twice more for 18 more yards, on a punt return touchdown by Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson. Steven said after the game that it was a hard way to go down and a tough defeat to swallow.
"It's pretty difficult. We led the entire game. To let this one get away is unfortunate," No. 39 said. "Both teams played tooth and nail. You could see that we're very evenly matched, two teams that know each other pretty well."
The Rams knew well enough that they could use SJ to be a workhorse and wear down the Arizona defense. That he did. By halftime he had carried 14 times for 53 yards and St. Louis had driven inside the Arizona 30 three times. Each time they converted a field goal and at the half they led 9-3.
"We put ourselves in field goal position and felt confident," he said. "But as an offense, we've had a lot of drives into the red zone and we keep coming up short. We put ourselves in a tough spot."
The St. Louis defense stiffened further in the second half, forcing two safeties, and the Rams took advantage to build a 13-6 lead with less than five minutes to go. The offense gained 194 yards in the second half and Steven had 71 of them on 13 carries and a catch.
"We started getting a good beat on what they were trying to do. We were moving the ball effectively," he said. "But Arizona knows us, and they have some playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Hats off to them and especially their special teams."
Arizona tied the game with 4:51 remaining when quarterback John Skelton hit Larry Fitzgerald for a 13-yard touchdown. But the Rams had a chance to bleed the clock and put the game away on their subsequent drive.
After back-to-back pass plays gave St. Louis a first down, they went to SJ on the next two plays and he carried for nine and then 19 yards, bringing the team from their own 39 across midfield to the Cardinals 42 in the process. St. Louis sat on the cusp of field goal range with 2:30 to go.
"We were hoping to seal the game. We've been very good statistically in short yardage," Steven said. "I think that's why coach showed so much confidence in us, because we have been so good in the past in short yardage."
On the next series, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo called out the same play on both third and fourth down, a stretch for SJ39 to the left. But each time, as Steven took the handoff and started going left, Cardinals defenders swarmed him. He never had a chance.
"In that situation, of course I was looking forward to [getting the ball]. I thought it was a good call," he said. "Unfortunately I was unable to come up with on the third down and the fourth down. I'm very disappointed in that. This is the first time we've allowed the other team to get the better of us in that situation."
The Rams turned the ball over on downs, but got it back with a minute to go and began to drive again. Steven's eight-yard scamper with 12 seconds to go set up a 41-yard try for Brown as the Rams took their final timeout. But then came the block, which forced overtime. A stalled possession and Peterson's game-winning followed, leaving the Rams in a state of shock.
Steven finished with 130 rushing yards on 29 carries and one catch for 12 yards, which moved him past Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch on the Rams' all-time receptions list. It was a performance that Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called "heroic." It wasn't enough for the Rams, but Brandon at Turf Show Times noted that it's not on Steven:
"Steven Jackson: 29 carries for 130 yards. It there anything left to say about Steven. What a warrior. He is the only player who shows up consistently each week. He gives the Rams 200% effort each week, and he deserves better. What a warrior."
There are still eight weeks left in the NFL season and Steven knows as well as anyone that this is no time to pack it in.
It will be on No. 39's shoulders to lead the Rams and make sure they keep their focus. It's a role he's familiar and comfortable with, but don't expect too many long speeches like the one he gave before the game against New Orleans.
"I'm not a big vocal person. I don't give great speeches," S-Jax said. "What I do is I encourage and I do pick my times and I believe I know the right times when to be really hard on a person. Telling them and demanding of them what this team needs and what I want out of them. I think it's a fine balance, but I think I kind of walk the line pretty good."
As Allie Steiner of StLouisRams.com writes, Steven does most of his leading through action:
This formula for success is described by Jackson as ‘repetition and discipline.' Jackson takes immaculate care of his body to keep himself able to play and also spends countless hours preparing for his opponent.
"The thing I like to say is repetition and discipline," Jackson said. "Doing the same things over and over and having the discipline enough to do it even when I'm tired, to do it even when I think I know it. But to continue to rep it, to continue to repeat it, to continue to study, it allows for me to play loosely on Sunday, play with confidence and more importantly, lead this team. I think that those two things allow for me to do so."
For more on Steven's leadership style, read Steiner's story at the Rams' website.
The Rams head to Cleveland next Sunday looking to get back on track as they take on the Browns. Kickoff is scheduled for 12 p.m. CST and the game can be seen on FOX.