Commentary

Saunders, Jackson look to change offensive culture in St. Louis

Originally Published: May 16, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Steven JacksonStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSlowed by a groin injury in 2007, Steven Jackson finished the season with 1,002 yards rushing.
Five players in NFL history have scored five or more rushing touchdowns in one game.

The St. Louis Rams scored five last season.

That included zero rushing touchdowns in the first seven games.

Steven Jackson has adjusted his public outlook accordingly. Instead of predicting 2,500 total yards for himself, as Jackson did entering last season, the Rams' young tailback is waiting to see where he stands with new offensive coordinator Al Saunders.

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Here is a hint: Saunders plans to run the offense through Jackson, a player he considers dynamic enough to match numbers with San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson or anyone else.

"The real good backs that I've been around -- Chuck Muncie, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson -- have all been three-dimensional backs," Saunders said. "Steven is in that class. He is a unique player."

Saunders sees in Jackson an authoritative and powerful runner with outstanding speed, excellent hands and good blocking skills. He also sees an improving route runner, an asset not always associated with 230-pound running backs.

"When you get somebody of his stature and his physical makeup, with his speed and his ability to run, catch and block, you are only limited by your own imagination in terms of what you can do with a player like that," Saunders said.

The last time Saunders was with the Rams, in 2000, the team scored 540 points. Faulk was the NFL's most dynamic offensive threat, scoring 26 touchdowns.

St. Louis scored only 263 points and 24 touchdowns last season. Injuries along the offensive line explained much of the Rams' troubles. They used 18 line combinations and ultimately couldn't overcome the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace to a season-ending shoulder injury in the opener.

Coach Scott Linehan also admitted to needing help with the offense. Jackson, receiver Torry Holt and others vented their frustrations as the Rams lost their first eight games on their way to 3-13. Something needed to change.

Saunders, whose NFL roots trace back to Don Coryell and the San Diego Chargers, spent the past two seasons working within Joe Gibbs' offensive philosophy at Washington. He is part of a revamped offensive staff in St. Louis. The Rams also made changes in the front office.

"Hopefully, it changes the culture around here so we can get back to winning football, get back to stretching the field and making plays and helping my teammates make plays," Jackson said.

When he was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City from 2001 to 2005, Saunders' teams averaged 48.6 touchdowns per season. That included 26 rushing touchdowns per season, six more than the Rams have scored in any season since Saunders' departure seven seasons ago. They scored 26 with Saunders in 2000.

Subsequent St. Louis teams scored 20, 11, 19, 11, 13, 13 and five. Jackson missed four games last season, but he still managed 1,002 yards rushing and 38 receptions. Most backs would take those 12-game totals without complaint, but Jackson is not most backs. He rushed for 1,528 yards with 90 receptions in 2006, numbers that put him in Faulk's class for at least one season.

"As long as coach Saunders believes in me and I believe in his play calling, I think we can do it," Jackson said.

The Rams remain in the early stages of installing Saunders' voluminous playbook. Players and coaches have spent less than a week working together. Jackson is probably wise to temper his public comments. Saunders' experience qualifies him to speak more freely. He holds back little when Jackson is the subject.

"From what I have seen on video and in person these last several months -- and you hate to go out on a limb before the season starts -- I don't think Steven Jackson has any limits to what he can do if everything is pulled together," Saunders said. "He has not even begun to reach his potential as a back."

It might be unrealistic to expect Jackson to score touchdowns the way Holmes did when Saunders ran the Chiefs' offense. Kansas City fielded an athletic and cohesive line with Pro Bowl talent. The Chiefs benefited from a versatile tight end in Tony Gonzalez. Another tight end, Jason Dunn, essentially served as an extra tackle. The Chiefs' blockers punished people in ways unavailable to most teams. Saunders and the Rams' new staff are still figuring out what kind of line they'll have.

Pace's health is a key variable. The 32-year-old tackle has missed 23 games over the past two seasons. His various injuries were unrelated to each other, giving the Rams hope that Pace has suffered more from bad luck than a chronic condition that is likely to recur.

Jacob Bell, a free-agent addition from Tennessee, takes over at left guard. Center Brett Romberg and right guard Richie Incognito are back from injuries. Alex Barron is back at right tackle, where he is more comfortable, after subbing for Pace on the left side.

If Pace is healthy, the Rams' line might possess the athleticism to work effectively on the perimeter, better enabling Jackson to exploit mismatches there.

Based on what Saunders has seen so far, tight ends Randy McMichael, Anthony Becht and Joe Klopfenstein have a chance to surprise. Becht, a blocker in Tampa Bay's run-oriented offense before landing in St. Louis as a free agent, figures to help when the Rams use two tight ends.

The offense will flow through Jackson, the better to keep quarterback Marc Bulger healthy.

"There is no limit to what Steven can do," Saunders said. "He has some exceptional skills and we plan to use him in a lot of different ways in our system."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com

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