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Will time catch up to Steven Jackson in 2011?

The St. Louis Rams generally were not very good on third downs last year. Overall, the team had a -25.8 percent DVOA (Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric)  on third downs, ranked 28th in the league, last season. RB Steven Jackson struggled in particular, and was one of the 10 worst running backs in the NFL on third downs last year according to this study from Doug Farrar at Yahoo Sports. 

Jackson carried the ball 27 times on third downs. He was successful, i.e. converted his run into a new set of downs, just 37 percent of the time. He had a DVOA of -30.7 percent, that was the seventh worst of qualified backs. So what gives?

Here's Farrar on Jackson's troubles:

Jackson's been a stud back on some very bad teams, but there may be some truth to the notion that he's starting to wear down - with a quarterback that finally game defenses something to focus on and an improved offensive line, Jackson put up worse metrics on every down from a 2009 season in which the Rams went 1-15.

I might quibble with the notion of Jackson's offensive line being improved. Blocking in the middle of the line was not up to snuff, but he does raise the concern on the mind of every Rams fan: Jackson's durability. Despite a pass-centric offense, the Rams still turned to Jackson as much as they have in the past, partly because the offense was on the field more last year than in prior seasons. It's hard to argue with the decline theory, offensive line troubles aside. 

In 2008, the Rams had a 9.0 percent DVOA on runs on third and fourth downs, their only positive category for DVOA on types of plays broken out by downs. Last year, the Rams had a DVOA of -7.7 percent on runs on third and fourth downs. Those numbers include all runs on third/fourth downs, not just Jackson's, but Jackson got the majority of runs in those situations for the Rams. This year, the Rams had a -26.3 percent DVOA on third/fourth down runs. 

Yesterday, we noted the effect of Jackson's broken finger taking away his ability to stiff arm defenders. A groin injury did him no favors either. There's another, much simpler number to look at when thinking about Jackson's 2011 season: rushing attempts.

Last season, Jackson carried the ball 330 times and had 46 catches for a total of 376 touches in 16 games. In 2009, he carried the ball 324 times and 51 receptions for a total of 375 touches in 15 games. That's a lot of wear and tear for a running back who has shouldered his team's offense for six seasons. 

In 2006, he carried the ball 346 times, a personal high, and 90 receptions for 436 total touches. The next season, he missed four games. 

Counting on Jackson to carry the load by himself next year could prove to be disastrous for the Rams. Missing out on finding a potential replacement in the draft could be looked at as a major turning point, depending on how the 2011 season goes. When free agency opens, the Rams better have a very good plan to address the issue.