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Friday, May 14, 2010
Pressure Point: Preserving Jackson

By Matt Williamson
Scouts Inc.

Steven Jackson
Steven Jackson led the NFC with 1,416 rushing yards in '09. It was his fifth straight 1,000-yard season.

A weekly look at a player whose performance must improve in 2010.

St. Louis is counting on Steven Jackson. He is needed. He is needed in many ways for the Rams to approach respectability.

Jackson is a great player. He is one of my favorite running backs in this league and is one of the true bell cow runners left. But I also think that a few years from now, Steve Spagnuolo is going to look back at his rookie year as a head coach and regret putting Jackson through the punishment he endured in 2009.

I hope Spagnuolo learns from his mistake last season, but something tells me we should expect more of the same in 2010. That puts Jackson under the spotlight, as the short-term fate of the Rams' offense rests firmly on his shoulders -- and on his now surgically repaired back.

My fear is that there will not be a long term. Let's face it; the Rams are not going to win the Super Bowl this season. They are rebuilding. And if/when they finally do become a contender, running back may be a major need because Jackson is spending his best days grinding out yardage on a terrible team.

With their massive investment in Sam Bradford, the Rams must have a ground game. Their offensive line is young and talented. It should be improved from a year ago.

Not only is Jackson the Rams' best player, but a solid running game is a rookie quarterback's best friend, and Jackson's receiving ability out of the backfield should provide Bradford with an exceptional and reliable option when the original play doesn't go according to script. Jackson can do it all well, including running on the perimeter or up the middle.

But the Rams, with or without Bradford as the starting quarterback, are not going to frighten many defenses with their passing game. Every defensive coordinator on the schedule is going to key on shutting down Jackson first and foremost. St. Louis lacks dangerous pass-catching weapons and Jackson will face a stacked box far more often than not.

That takes a toll on a running back's body. Not only is he going to take a lot of hits, but he is going to get hit often by multiple defenders at once. Obviously this is true for all ball carriers, but more so for Jackson considering his circumstances.

Is this offseason surgery the beginning of the end for Jackson? Often when a running back begins to lose a step, the decline is very rapid. Last season, he didn't break long runs like he once did, and if this trend continues, the writing might be on the wall.

With the huge number of needs St. Louis has in its rebuilding project, it is understandable why the Rams have gone in other directions instead of acquiring a backup running back for Jackson, but this massive hole on their roster could really hurt the franchise for the long term. The lack of a suitable backup running back might lead to the erosion of the Rams' best asset.

That might be jumping the gun -- and some running backs will hit the open market before opening day -- but I just hope St. Louis is very careful with how it uses Jackson. For example, Jackson's back spasms to finish the 2009 season now seem rather dubious, and having him tough it out in Week 17 is a perfect example of how not to prolong the running back's shelf life.

Still, I love the way Jackson plays, and as of right now, I would put only Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson clearly over him in my running back rankings. Jackson is a resource that must be preserved.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.