Steven Jackson is having a distinct uptick in production numbers lately, as you've probably noticed. The St. Louis Rams veteran running back has topped the 100-yard mark twice in the last three games, and the Rams are 1-0-1 during that same stretch. Those numbers, the carries and the resulting yards, are the byproduct of two recent trends for the Rams, improved blocking up front and a plan to increase Jackson's workload later in the season.
"Well, the line's improved," head coach Jeff Fisher said on Thursday. "We've done a pretty good job getting him the carries, that's the important thing is getting him the opportunities. And plus, I think, he's fresher than most backs at this time of the year, particularly because of the way we kind of managed the reps early in the season."
The Rams intentionally dialed back Jackson's workload through the first half of the season, according to the coaches. As the calendar turns over, that has allowed them to increase his workload, making him more of the focal point of the offense.
"Well, one of the things that we wanted to do early in the season was share time with him to keep him fresh," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer explained. "I think that's helped out. This time of year you kind of go and you go with the hot hand. He has that. We certainly have plays for the other guys, but when he's running the way he's running it's hard to take him off the field."
What also helped out was having a complementary back like Daryl Richardson. The rookie seventh-round pick isn't a do-it-all back like Jackson, but he gets low and barrels into his running lane, keeping it simple. Working a featured back into a more significant role is nothing new for the Rams' coaching staff.
"I know we had success with that in New York," Schottenheimer said. "Coach ‘Bou' (Paul Boudreau) had success with that in Atlanta a little bit.
"You just spell those guys some early in the year and their bodies feel a lot better when you get into late November and you get into December. Again, this is the time of year you've got to be able to run the football to have a chance. Again, I think that we're hopefully seeing the results of us resting him a little bit."
To some extent, it depends on the running back too. Schottenheimer had LaDainian Tomlinson for two years in New York, including 2010 when the future Hall of Fame rusher was in much better playing condition. He retired after the 2011 season. The Falcons had Michael Turner.
It's clearly not a hard and fast rule. In 2010, Turner had 20+ carries in five of the Falcons' last eight games versus just three games with 20+ carries in the first half of the year. Turner had four games of 20+ carries in the first half of last season and just three in the second half.
Fisher compares Jackson to another back: Eddie George.
"Eddie took over a lot of games like Steven did last weekend and Steven's done a lot of that before," Fisher said. "But, they're big, strong powerful runners that can ware down a defense."
Jackson's been in on the plan from the beginning.
"The coaching staff has been pretty open and honest with me about how they're going to use me in the offense and what they need out of me as a leader," Jackson said. "Everything has been true to form. As we continue to go on in the season, I expect for them to continue to be open and honest with me and hopefully I can keep continuing to perform like I am."
This is season number nine for Jackson, and he's closing in on another milestone, topping 1,000 rushing yards for the eighth consecutive season. Only Tomlinson and Thurman Thomas have done that. He needs 276 yards with five games left to play. Fisher and Schottenheimer's plan to hold Jackson back earlier in the season might help accomplish that feat. Jackson has only played in all 16 games twice in his career so far.
As you would expect, numbers and offensive plans are just another thing for Jackson. Fisher is the fifth head coach Jackson has played for during his nine seasons with the Rams, including interim Joe Vitt in 2005.
"Each season brings its different circumstances, different things you have to deal with," Jackson said, sounding every bit like the seasoned pro he is. "The dynamics of the teams are a little different. But, I do feel great. I feel energized. I feel strong. To be playing meaningful football in December, that adds to it as well. I'm just really happy the way the offensive line has been performing for me. I've been trying to take advantage of the opportunities once they're given to me."