When Steven Jackson laces up on Sunday in San Francisco, he will be trying to do something that no NFL player has done since he did it almost a full year ago: score a rushing touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers.
On December 26, 2010, No. 39 hit the end zone for a one-yard touchdown in a Week 16 Rams win over the Niners at the Edward Jones Dome. Since then, San Francisco has not permitted a single running back to find paydirt.
Many of the NFL's best have tried this season — LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, LeGarrette Blount and Marshawn Lynch among them — but none have found their way to the end zone. At 12 weeks, it's the longest such streak in professional football since 1928. Steven will be looking to break that streak and push the Rams to a victory as St. Louis visits the Bay Area on Sunday.
"It's going to be a tough game," Jackson said. "I'm not coming in expecting anything different. If anything, I am the last guy to score a running touchdown against them so I am expecting more. That's the mindset I have going into Sunday."
The 49ers (9-2) lead the NFC West by a wide margin over second place Seattle and have done much of their damage this season defensively. Teams average just 75.5 rushing yards per game against San Francisco, by far the best in the NFL. Only one running back has rushed for more than 60 yards against San Francisco this season, Cedric Benson of the Bengals, and only Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has reached 75 yards rushing against the Niners this year.
Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who will draw up the gameplan to combat the 49ers on Sunday, knows how hard the San Francisco defense makes it for an offense to have success.
"Their front seven is probably as good as there is in football, at least as good as the teams we have had a chance to go up against," McDaniels said. "They play a 3-4 system, they don't do a whole lot, they are not real fancy in terms of what they do. They have just got really good football players. They are stout upfront and both of the inside linebackers to me are playing at an extremely high level."
But S-Jax says he's looking at Sunday's game as just another game against the same 49ers team he and the Rams have been facing for years.
"Those guys over the years regardless of what their record reflected, they pretty much played good football their last five-six seasons," SJ39 said. "That was something they really only hung their hat on and kind of built the team around that, being a tough, hard-nosed defense with a good running game that they have with Frank Gore. This has actually been the staple of their team. With that, the quarterback is playing good now. They're creating turnovers which has them in this position that they are in and that's leading the NFC West."
For the Rams to have success against the 49ers and, beyond that, for the rest of the season, the team is well aware that they must diversify their offensive attack.
That means, try as they might, St. Louis cannot allow teams to take away their rushing game.
"I still think in this game that you can't do just one thing," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "Teams figure it out pretty good. We are going to try to remain balanced. We have a pretty good running back and hopefully we'll have some schemes that will work. But they certainly are a pretty stout run defense."
One key could lie in Steven's touches. The Rams are 2-1 when No. 39 gets at least 25 touches in a game, their lone loss, an overtime defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals. On the other hand, St. Louis is 0-5 when S-Jax plays a full game and gets fewer than 25 touches. That includes the Rams' last two losses, when Steven had 15 and 17 carries respectively. For his part, No. 39 still thinks the Rams can deploy him in any situation with success.
"I believe our coaching staff knows that about me," he said. "Anytime a game is only one possession, I think it still gives you credibility to run the game plan and be an even and balanced offense. I think we know that, I think we get that."
Complicating matters may be the absence of quarterback Sam Bradford for the third game this season. Bradford suffered a setback with his ankle this week in practice and is a game-time decision for Sunday. Veteran A.J. Feeley would step up to start again if Bradford cannot play and SJ is confident that Feeley, who led the Rams to a win in his last start, can handle the reigns.
"It's kind of what we've been dealing with all season long," Steven said. "A man's going to have to step up if someone's going down, and you've just gotta trust that what you've been doing all season, that (new) person knows what to do. And you go out there and you try to execute the game plan."
Whether it's Bradford or Feeley under center, that game plan is sure to feature S-Jax in the rushing and passing games. 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told the Mercury News that No. 39 will be a challenge to slow down.
"He's a big, 240-pound back who likes to get his pads going," Fangio said, "but he also likes bouncing out and hunting (defensive backs) to run over."
The annual matchups between the 49ers and Rams always seems to bring out the best in each team. That can certainly be said when SJ39 and Patrick Willis go head-to-head.
The two players have mutual respect for and a long history with one another. Over the next several weeks they'll face twice and Steven is anxiously anticipating the opportunity to be challenged by one of the best.
"I enjoy it," Jackson said. "He's a great football player. He's a tackling machine and they do a great job in their scheme of getting him free to the running back. From that, the camaraderie and competitive spirit over the years of both of us has taken on a new life. So I look forward to the next five weeks, I get to see him twice."
Willis and SJ39 have faced off seven times since San Francisco drafted Willis in 2007 and each man knows what to expect when they go nose-to-nose.
"It's always fun to play against him," Willis said, "because he's always going to bring his best. Which means you always have to bring yours."
Who gets the best of the matchup this Sunday could go a long way toward determining which team walks away victorious.
The Rams will certainly be looking to play the role of spoiler as the 49ers try for the rest of this season to clinch home playoff games and possibly a first round bye.
But SJ39 said their mission is also about having pride in oneself and one another, while trying to build toward the future of Rams football, one game at a time.
"We still want to compete," Steven said. "We still all hope that one day we can be the NFC (West) divisional champs. Right now they're playing the best football in the division and to get a win like this would give you something to build off of and the momentum over the next five weeks."
Sunday's kickoff is scheduled for 3:15 CST and the game can be seen on FOX.