Steven Jackson, the Rams and a bittersweet reunion

Chris Graythen

Steven Jackson is reuniting with the Rams after being let go by the team in the offseason. Jackson says he misses St. Louis, and no doubt the city misses him back. Come game time, however, a vicious front seven will be looking to bury him.

For the first time in a decade, Steven Jackson will be on the same field as the St. Louis Rams decked out in colors other than blue and gold. Jackson and the Rams amicably went their separate ways this offseason -- the Rams ready to move on from Jackson's declining production; Jackson ready to compete for a Super Bowl before his legs give out. As a result, Jackson now faces the Rams as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.

Jackson admits he will be emotional for the bout, that he still speaks with former teammates and that he misses the support staff that stuck around the Rams' organization throughout his nine years. He also knows that business comes first.

When you allow emotions to take over, you’re not on your A-game -Steven Jackson

"I’d be lying to say I don’t want to get the win, of course I want to get the win, but I have to come out there and just remain in the zone, in my focus and not get too up," Jackson said on a conference call Wednesday. "When you allow emotions to take over, your wind becomes short, you’re not even thinking, you’re not on your A-game."

The Rams, meanwhile, have one of the toughest young defensive fronts in football. They held the Arizona Cardinals to just 86 yards rushing at 3.3 yards per carry in Week 1, and will do everything they can to bury the man who rushed 2,395 times for 10,138 yards and 56 touchdowns, setting new franchise rushing records.

The matchup between one of the most popular players in Rams history and an upstart front seven should make for compelling television. The game will be equal parts bitter and sweet for St. Louis fans, and should be fascinating to watch for outsiders eager to see what an amped-up Jackson will do against his former team. The veteran is no doubt motivated, but he will have to combat a number of factors beyond his control if he is going to put up big numbers Sunday.

Historical precedent

Jackson is the fifth player in NFL history to play against a team for whom he rushed for at least 10,000 yards, joining Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Fred Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson. Two of those players are in the Hall of Fame, and the other two have resumes that could put them in Canton. They also struggled mightily when they went up against their former teammates.

Player Age New Team Old Team Date Carries Yards Receptions Yards TDs
Emmitt Smith 34 Cardinals Cowboys Oct. 5, 2003 6 -1 2 2 0
Thurman Thomas 34 Dolphins Bills Oct. 8, 2000 7 24 3 26 0
Fred Taylor 33 Patriots Jaguars Dec. 27, 2009 11 35 0 0 0
LaDainian Tomlinson 32 Jets Chargers Oct. 23, 2011 5 14 3 37 0

Only Thomas and Tomlinson managed 50 or more total yards in their reunion bouts, only Thomas and Taylor averaged more 3.0 yards per carry and none of the four backs were able to find the end zone. That's a bad precedent for Jackson.

Working in Jackson's favor is the fact that he's just 30 years old. He is more than two years younger than Tomlinson was when he faced the Chargers in 2011, and will have played in 30 fewer games entering his reunion game. Jackson's legs will be relatively fresh compared to his antecedents. Unfortunately for him, his current teammates may not do him any favors.

Falcons offensive line woes

The addition of Jackson was supposed to make the Falcons offense one of the best in the league. Not only had Michael Turner's legs been giving out, but Jackson added sorely-needed pass-catching capability out of the backfield. Things were looking up until Week 1, when the New Orleans Saints exposed how badly the Falcons needed help on the offensive line.

The Falcons lost right tackle Tyson Clabo and center Todd McClure during the offseason. They were replaced by 2012 draft picks Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz. The Falcons gave up three sacks against the Saints, and Jackson managed just 27 yards on 10 carries outside of his 50-yard run during the 23-17 loss. The Saints defense gave up 147.6 yards rushing per game and 5.2 yards per carry last season, both league highs.

Dave Choate at Falcons blog The Falcoholic proposed several fixes to the Falcons' front wall. Unfortunately for Falcons fans, they may have no choice but to ride out the season with the young talent they have:

Sam Baker is at least a decent left tackle, and Justin Blalock has been solid for a long time. Peter Konz is growing into center rapidly, and Garrett Reynolds has had some success. Holmes is the only real unknown here, and even if the known quantities don't all engender confidence, they played well enough to get the Falcons wins in 2012. The Falcons, bless or curse them, aren't ones to break with what's worked. ...

... The short answer, then: There is no easy fix. We have to hope for improvement, and if it's not forthcoming, it's going to be a long season.

Rams' defensive resurgence

The Rams had a criminally overlooked defense last season, though that was perhaps to be expected playing the same division as the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The front seven was middle-of-the-road against the run, giving up 4.3 yards per carry and 117.5 yards per game. However, Football Outsiders graded the Rams defense as the 10th best unit when it came to playing the run.

The pass rush should be just as formidable in 2013 with Chris Long and Robert Quinn back, and the run defense should be better with Michael Brockers entering his second season at defensive tackle and 2013 first-round pick Alec Ogletree bolstering the linebacker corps next to James Laurinaitis. Jackson will need to make the most of any bit of space he can find Sunday.

The upshot

Jackson is in for a rough day by most objective measures, but it'd be foolish to discount the man himself. He has turned in eight straight seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing, and has averaged under 4.1 yards per carry just once in his career, back in 2010. He produced at least 97 total yards of offense in three of his four meetings against the 49ers or Seahawks last season, and had a season-high 139 yards rushing on 24 carries against the Cardinals in November. There is plenty left in the tank if all else goes his way.

And if not, at least Jackson and the Rams will be together one more time. Jackson admitted during his conference call that he seriously considered retirement after the 2012 season, and depending on what happens in 2013, he may not be playing much longer. After all, none of Smith, Thomas, Taylor and Tomlinson played more than two seasons after leaving their original teams.

The game at the Georgia Dome may be Jackson's last rendezvous with the team that drafted him, developed him and helped him become one of the best running backs in the league. Regardless of what he does on the field, big game or no, Jackson will have the admiration of everyone from Atlanta to St. Louis.

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