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AFTER LOSING 28--7 to the Vikings at home in their preseason opener on Aug. 14, the Rams returned to the practice field determined to clean up their mistakes. Late in a session two days afterward, Steven Jackson took a handoff, headed toward the right side of the line and was bumped off balance by wide receiver Donnie Avery, who had been pushed into the hole by a stronger defender.
Jackson, who is as intense in workouts as he is in games, picked himself up off the turf and slammed the ball between his hands in frustration. His angry words went unheard by onlookers at practice, but they might as well have been Details, details. Later in the practice he went to Avery and explained to the receiver that he has to hold his ground when sealing the edge on a running play to his side, otherwise the hole shrinks.
"And the holes are already small enough," Jackson says, chuckling.
Not that Jackson needs his holes to be gaping. Despite playing behind a makeshift line last season, and with a passing game that was nonexistent at times, the two-time Pro Bowler ran for 1,416 yards, and his 1,738 yards from scrimmage ranked fifth in the NFL. With rookie Sam Bradford, the top pick in April's draft, expected to take over at quarterback at some point this year—if not right away—Jackson will be counted on to carry even more of the load in St. Louis, which seems physically impossible considering that he's been carrying most of it already. His 324 rushes last season were 297 more than his backup, the largest gap in the league.
Says center Jason Brown, "What do they call that special player on Madden? The game-breaker? He's our game-breaker. He adds an explosive nature to our offense. We know as an offensive line if we do our job at least 10 percent better than last year and sustain some of those blocks, it's off to the house for him. Our goal this year is make sure that we allow Steven to shine in the way that he deserves."
Jackson has been overshadowed much of his career not only because he has played on bad teams—the Rams were 1--15 in 2009; they're 6--42 since '07 and have not had a winning season during his six-year tenure—but also because his Pro Bowl seasons coincided with record-breaking performances by other backs. (Last season it was Tennessee's Chris Johnson who took center stage.) The only records Jackson is concerned with at this point, however, are those on the paper taped to his locker: the St. Louis franchise rushing leaders. Jackson needs only 539 yards to eclipse Eric Dickerson's alltime Rams mark of 7,245. If Jackson maintains his career average of 79.8 yards a game, he'll reach that sometime around the Rams' Oct. 24 date at Tampa Bay. "When I signed here, I wanted to leave this franchise as its leading rusher," he says. "I wanted to break every rushing record that they have. That's still my personal goal."
It grates on Jackson that his only playoff appearance came as a rookie backup in 2004, but the prospects of a turnaround this season are dim. No matter how ready Bradford is when he takes over, there isn't much for him to work with. Injuries prevented the five projected starting offensive linemen—the team drafted 6'5", 325-pound left tackle Rodger Saffold 33rd overall out of Indiana in April to shore up a group that gave up 44 sacks last year, seventh worst in the NFL—from playing together during the first half of training camp. The St. Louis receiving corps, meanwhile, lacks a proven No. 1 wideout, a deficiency that became more pronounced after Avery (47 receptions in 2009) was lost for the season last week when he tore the ACL in his right knee.
But Jackson, rather than seek an exit from such a mess before his skills diminish, soldiers on, running through defenders, setting an example for teammates, focusing on the microscopic details that ultimately separate success from failure. "That's why Steven is as good as he is," says middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. "He has the mentality that if he's going to be on the field, he's going to work. When you have a guy who is the face of your franchise and he carries around that type of attitude, it really sends a message and gets the point across."
In St. Louis, Jackson's point can't hit home soon enough.