It's no secret that Steven Jackson, the St. Louis Rams franchise leading rusher, looked like something less than his usual all-world self last year. There were a variety of factors wrapped up in Jackson's career low 3.8 yards per carry, soft interior run blocking, play calls that continually sent him up the middle and injuries. It's that last item, injuries, that have the Rams and their fans most concerned ahead of 2011. It also will have Billy Devaney scrambling to find a backup running back when the league finally opens for business.
Sticking with my first thought, injuries, Jackson's broken left ring finger might have been more of a problem than people thought at the time. Here's what Devaney had to say about that injury and Jackson's reduced effectiveness last year:
He couldn't stiff-arm anybody, which is a big part of his game ... and he couldn't even switch the ball from one hand to the other. He was basically playing one-handed.
The article shows the difference for Jackson before and after.
In the first seven games of the season, Jackson averaged 4.14 yards per carry and 88.1 yards per game. In the final nine games, playing with the broken finger, those fell to 3.44 yards and 69.3 yards, respectively.
For as much blame as the line got for Jackson's troubles last year, the Rams actually had a lower mark for RB yards, 3.63, than adjusted line yard, 3.77, according to Football Outsiders. That's the first year since 2006 where RB yards have been lower than ALY. The Rams also ranked toward the bottom of the league in second level yards (27th) and open field yards (25th), stats that running backs typically carry more responsibility for than the front five. Those are also areas where the Rams used to fare pretty well statistically, (ranked 4th and 11th, respectively, in 2009).
Jackson's finger should be fine for 2011, but it doesn't take away the worry and the need for a backup running back, preferably an effective backup running back. Once the business of football gets underway again, it'll be interesting to see which names get the boot from their current teams. Once player who might be looking for a second chance somewhere is Steve Slaton, who would be a solid answer for the Rams if he can fix his fumble issues. I'll also be interested to keep an eye on the RB situation in Green Bay, where they're flush after picking Hawaii RB Alex Green in this year's draft. Ryan Grant seems the most likely to hit the street. Would he be healthy enough for the Rams?