RB Jackson key to passing game

The Rams believe they have what it takes to put up the big offensive numbers they did during their Super Bowl years.

Updated: August 2, 2005, 12:43 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- The swagger is back with the St. Louis Rams. Much like a couple of years ago, Rams offensive downs aren't just plays. They are shows. The pace is quick. The routes are imaginative. Overall, the old confidence has returned.

Inside Rams camp
RamsHow's the health of safety Adam Archuleta? Which newcomer should have a big impact in the front 7? Those are just a couple of the things John Clayton touches on in his observations from Rams camp.
• Inside Rams camp
"You need three or four receivers [for this offense] and we have four solid receivers now," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "We brought back [tight end] Roland Williams, and he was with the team when we were the greatest show on turf. He still thinks it's that way. We had to go through a couple of rough years, and you hate to let that persona down."

Training camp practices opened with that old flair the Rams had in their Super Bowl years (1999, 2001 seasons). Practice passes never hit the turf. Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald snatch passes out of the air and try to zip past corners. Running back Steven Jackson explodes through the line of scrimmage and then uses his 230-pound body to "shake-and-bake" a linebacker. A thin Marshall Faulk runs routes with renewed quickness.

When this offense is working well, we can move down the field so quickly teams don't have time to catch up. Normally in those situations, defenses try to get safe. Coach Martz is the best when teams start getting safety because he starts attacking them.
QB Marc Bulger

Coach Mike Martz says the Rams' swagger is just confidence. Fans love it. Opponents view it as arrogance and hate it. Rams players say their confidence is a byproduct of having fun, and the fun is back because the Rams' offense has reloaded.

"I was just saying it this morning that it was like it was when I came in during my first year," Holt said. "Then, we had a great mix of veterans with some young guys coming in to help. It's the same way now. As long as the guys up front on the offensive line hold, we have that swagger. The coaches have the swagger. Practices are fun. We are going out there and we are seeing the ability to click and jell at a high pace."

Returning to the 500-point-a-year level of 1999-2001 might be tough, but the Rams make a case they are ready to make a run. Curtis and McDonald have evolved into significant role players who augment the 90-catch skills of Holt and Bruce. Each has three years of experience in the offense. Curtis offers blistering speed that inside corners can't match. McDonald isn't Az-Zahir Hakim, but he offers a little bit of the shiftiness and run-after-the catch ability.

But the single most exciting addition to the offense this year is Jackson. This isn't the dreadlocked rookie who looked lost in 2004. Jackson dropped five pounds and added quickness. His body fat is a mere 5 percent. His impact as the featured back -- often sharing the backfield with Faulk -- could be one of the most watched changes in the NFC this fall.

"He's 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and he's got those scary-looking dreadlocks," Holt said. "He runs strong. He catches the ball well, and you know how critical it is. Running backs in this offense have to know the offense as well as the quarterback. If the back is getting 5 or 6 [yards] per carry, the impact is huge. Teams will have to bring an extra man in to handle it. That opens one-on-one matchups for the wide receivers. Steven's explosion is incredible."

As a rookie, Jackson averaged 5 yards a carry, but got just a little more than eight carries a game. Now he's the starter, even though Faulk is considered 1-A.

Running the football may not appear to be in the diabolical offensive mind of Martz, but don't be surprised. The re-signing of Williams to go with Brandon Manumaleuna offers the chance for the Rams to switch into two-tight end sets with two players adept at catching the ball. Martz isn't opposed to calling four or five running plays in a row to confuse a defense.

The diabolical aspect of the running game is what Jackson and Faulk can do together, a feature Martz plans to exploit this season.

"Steven came in here with that certain air about him that great players have," Martz said. "He's very confident without being cocky. His feeling is just give him the ball and put it on his shoulders just like Jerome Bettis. Marshall has helped him with that."

This is the same Faulk who is also the best receiving back in this era. Because Martz can let Jackson pound the ball into the middle of the defense, Faulk lost weight in order to enhance his quickness in running routes. in addition, Manumaleuna can line up at fullback at 288 pounds.

It's not that the Rams are going to be a running offense. That will never happen. Martz is all about passing. But running plays set up bigger pass plays, and the components of the 2005 offense should keep defenses guessing.

But it's Jackson who catches your eye.

Fantasy focus: Steven Jackson
He has been handed the starting job after a rookie season in which Jackson showed flashes of great promise. Knee problems were a concern last year, but Jackson has reportedly come to camp in good condition, without any apparent lingering issues after arthroscopic surgery during the offseason. St. Louis has also installed new turf at the Edward Jones Dome, which should mean less wear on Jackson's repaired right knee.

Jackson is a big, strong back who hits the hole with authority and can gain extra yardage when he builds momentum in the open field. But he is still progressing in terms of reading his blockers, and he doesn't display great speed, although he can be quick in open spaces. Jackson is tough and determined and should have a few outstanding statistical performances.

But Marshall Faulk hasn't gone away completely, and Jackson will surely lose some carries to the veteran RB. Jackson will show some great promise this year, but as he continues to learn on the job and deals with the presence of Faulk, his numbers might be disappointing at times. Don't look for his true breakthrough season until next year.
-- Scott Engel, associate editor of Fantasy Games

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  • "We are coming back to that form of being a threat on offense and being dangerous on all sides of the ball," Jackson said. "I bring that youth in there. I'm hungry. I'm not going to let up on any play. With Marshall out there with me at times, no team is going to be able to pick up on the formations and how we line up. I like being the hard runner. Marshall is more of a slasher and the elusive guy. I'm bringing back the Jerome Bettis-Eric Dickerson days. I'm a hard runner inside the tackle."

    Can the Rams get back to that 500-point level? A soft schedule helps, and the Rams could end up with the league's easiest -- just as they did during their first Super Bowl year. The Rams play only seven games against teams with 8-8 records or better last season. Their opponents this season went a combined 114-142 last year, making for the lowest record-against schedule in the league. To get 500 points, a team needs some 40-point games against easy opponents.

    The Rams showed signs of that explosiveness at times last year but left a lot of points on the field, which tends to be frustrating.

    "It was tough," Holt said. "At times, it was there. At times, it wasn't there. There is a transition of getting new guys in the system who have to understand what it takes to be a St. Louis Ram. This is a new generation of Rams. I think the guys now have a better understanding of what it takes. But when it was missing, it was frustrating."

    While Jackson expects to be the breakout runner this year, Curtis should be the breakout wide receiver. It's year three for Curtis and McDonald and it takes about three years to get comfortable with the many formations and adjustments. Though Holt and Bruce will get most of the catches, Curtis, who caught 32 passes for 421 yards last season, should become a big-play threat who should gain chunks of yards.

    "Kevin is a rocket and he usually gets the third defensive back, which is not your best defensive back," Bulger said. "A guy is a nickel back for a reason. Kevin could start for at least half the teams in the NFL. He can run by anyone. A lot of teams playing the Tampa cover two take the middle linebacker to run with the inside receiver. Kevin can run by that. That guy may be a 4.4, but Kevin is a 4.2 or a 4.3, and he's going to beat them every time."

    The big worry, though, is the offensive line, which is once again precariously thin. Rex Tucker has to handle the left guard position. Blaine Saipaia is going to right tackle. Any injury or two along the line could be a disaster.

    "If we keep everybody healthy, I think we are going to score a lot more points," Bulger said. "When this offense is working well, we can move down the field so quickly teams don't have time to catch up. Normally in those situations, defenses try to get safe. Coach Martz is the best when teams start getting safety because he starts attacking them."

    The Show is ready to return.

    John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    John Clayton

    NFL senior writer