ST. LOUIS (AP) -Conserving Steven Jackson for the regular season serves two purposes for the St. Louis Rams.
Last year's NFL leader in combined rushing and receiving yards is fresh for the games that count, and his rookie backup, second-round pick Brian Leonard, is getting a lot of work. While Jackson had a ceremonial start in Saturday night's 30-13 loss to the Chargers, lining up for the first play and then heading for the sideline, Leonard got 19 touches.
St. Louis (1-1) might be copying the Chargers, who since the 2005 preseason have held back LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL's MVP last year. The Rams also realize how important Jackson is to their dreams coming off a breakout season in which he racked up 2,334 yards.
``Every year, because players are bigger and faster and stronger and more expensive, you've got to make sure a guy like Steven Jackson, who is a game-changer, is healthy for the regular season and the playoffs,'' offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. ``It's important that we have him at the end of the season when hopefully we're making a playoff push.''
Leonard, a tailback at Rutgers for three seasons before moving to fullback as a senior, has been such a quick study that he'll get some snaps at fullback in the final two preseason games. He had 49 yards on 17 carries and two catches for 18 yards against the Chargers, after scoring on a 10-yard run in the preseason opener at Minnesota.
``I was more settled down this game,'' Leonard said. ``I knew more what to expect as to the speed of the game, and how these guys bring it.''
Quarterback Marc Bulger has been impressed with Leonard's willingness to just move the chains, rather than try for big plays.
``He's not trying to do too much,'' Bulger said. ``He understands that four or five yards is great on first down.
``A lot of young backs are so used to getting so many yards on first down and I think he understands already that you take what they give you.''
In two preseason games, Jackson has only two catches for 8 yards. He wasn't used a lot in the 2006 preseason, either, totaling 17 carries and three receptions. That light warmup obviously was no factor for Jackson, who finished with a career-high 1,528 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns and an NFL-leading 90 catches for 806 yards and three more scores.
This year Jackson is aiming for 2,500 total yards and the Rams believe a strong backup will help him reach that goal. Rams coach Scott Linehan said Jackson's playing time will increase ``a little bit'' for the third preseason game Friday at Oakland, which could mean a handful of snaps, but Leonard is expected to get most of the carries.
Most of the front-line players will get limited or no duty at all in the final preseason game Aug. 30 against the Chiefs.
``Our biggest question is, 'If Steven weren't in the game, who are we going to play?''' Linehan said. ``I don't have any question about what Steven is going to be able to do.''
Both Linehan and Olson noted that Jackson, a first-round pick in 2004 who has blossomed since Marshall Faulk sat out the 2006 season and subsequently retired due to chronic knee woes, takes all the snaps with the first team in practice. They also point out that it's been a fairly physical camp.
``We saw what we needed to see last season,'' Olson said. ``He took a big leap in terms of being a premier running back, and we're obviously a different team without him.''
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