St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson (39) is tackled by Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays (51) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010, in Denver. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider) By Chris Schneider
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Steven Jackson hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game in more than a month. Not that he's counting.
No complaints from the two-time Pro Bowl running back, whose job these days is to keep defenses occupied so rookie quarterback Sam Bradford can find open receivers down the field.
"At this point, I understand that a lot of my role now is to keep a defense honest," Jackson said Thursday. "Not to say I'm not going to play hard or be the back that I know I can be. But defenses game plan to stop our running game first."
Jackson averaged only 2.5 yards per carry last week at Denver, totaling 72 yards. Every time he made a cut while searching for room to run, more tacklers were waiting. Even when he didn't get the ball, he took a pounding.
It's been like that for a while. Jackson's 3.8-yard average would be a career low for a full season and he has only three 100-yard games.
But it would be a mistake to believe the bruising, 235-pound back is in decline. He doesn't mind making the sacrifice in exchange for playing meaningful games in December, a big step up for a franchise that was 6-42 the past three seasons.
The Rams (5-6) are tied for first place in the mediocre NFC West with a legitimate shot at their first playoff spot since 2006.
"As long as we're moving the ball, we're all happy," center Jason Brown said. "Jack, he's not a selfish person."
Bradford was picked as the NFL offensive rookie of the month for the second time on Thursday, an indication of the No. 1 pick's improvement.
Jackson touted Bradford for rookie of the year.
Yet Jackson expects to keep burrowing, fighting and dragging bodies for yards against defenses heavily stacked to stop the run. He certainly expects oversized attention this week at Arizona, where the Rams will try to end a seven-game series losing streak against a team that's been sagging.
The Cardinals have lost six in a row and are 31st against the run, allowing 146.5 yards per game. Quarterback Derek Anderson, Jackson's friend since they were teammates at Oregon State, is trying to move past a postgame rant following Monday's 27-6 loss to the 49ers when he was caught on camera smiling during a conversation with a teammate.
Jackson said it would be difficult for anyone to replace Kurt Warner.
"I was proud of him for sticking up for himself, but I was more proud that he came back and apologized," Jackson said. "I think if he never had that blowup, you probably would think that he didn't care as much. So it worked out for him and hopefully he can move on from it."
As for the Arizona defense, Jackson is all too familiar with it. He was pretty much held in check in a season-opening 17-14 victory in St. Louis, getting 81 yards on 22 carries.
"I can name the whole defense, I know them like the back of my hand," Jackson said. "I'm pretty sure they're going to focus on the running game, put a lot of pressure on Sam, try to confuse him in coverages. If he continues to be poised and as sharp as he has been, I think we'll be fine."
Bradford's first career 300-yard passing day last week might loosen things up. He threw three touchdown passes and produced a season-best 431 total yards as the Rams ended a seven-game road losing streak with a 36-33 victory at Denver.
"Hopefully, if anything, it will open up some lanes for Jack," Bradford said. "I think the past couple weeks, we've seen nothing but eight-man boxes.
"I understand why defenses do it, but hopefully they'll start to respect the pass a little bit more."
Jackson will believe it when he sees fewer bodies jammed near the line waiting for him.
Of course, it's not all that bad. With five games to go Jackson is 117 yards shy of a sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season, which would extend his franchise record.
He's relatively healthy, too, if you discount the broken finger on his left ring finger that has forced him to play one-handed for several weeks. It's a lot better than last season, when he played the final third of the season with a ruptured disk in his back that required offseason surgery.
"This is the freshest," Jackson said, "that I've felt in a long time."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)