ST. LOUIS (AP) -No player is as important to the St. Louis Rams' offense as Steven Jackson.
The long holdout by the team's featured back seemed to prove that point. Coming off a third straight 1,000-yard season despite missing four games with injuries, Jackson wanted a new deal with more guaranteed money as he entered the final year of his contract.
The offense, which averaged only 16 points in last season's three-win mess, continued to scuffle without Jackson, who finally signed a six-year contract.
The first-string offense has struggled to score touchdowns this preseason, as it has the last two years under coach Scott Linehan, hired to succeed offensive innovator Mike Martz based on his successes as a coordinator with the Vikings and Dolphins. A lack of production in the preseason may not be a big deal for proven teams, and Linehan has played down the offensive woes.
``I have no concerns at all that it'll start coming around,'' he said. ``I think when you see the attitude, our ability to run and protect up front, there's a lot of positives you can draw from in what's going to be a really good offense, I think, at the end of the day.''
Still, given the team's recent history, there's no avoiding the feeling it may be a preview of coming attractions that could lead to more home games blacked out on local television.
The Rams failed to sell out three times in 2007, and this year's home preseason opener drew a quiet crowd that was about 13,000 seats shy of capacity. It was the franchise's lowest attendance since moving to the Midwest in 1995.
The Rams are banking on a return to the Super Bowl-style multiple-receiver, spread-the-field offense under new coordinator Al Saunders. He was one of Dick Vermeil's top lieutenants on the franchise's title team in the 1999 season, and hopes are for a rebound from quarterback Marc Bulger, coming off an injury-plagued, disappointing 2007.
``They know if it's run right and guys are doing the things they should do, we have a chance for success,'' Saunders said. ``Like any offense or defense, it's about the players and about being prepared and playing at a high level, and I think we've got a lot of guys capable of doing that.''
Linehan knows how important Jackson is to the equation, and he was careful to avoid criticism. As the Rams were averaging 10 points in the first two preseason games, the coach remained in contact with the running back via text messaging. The Rams cut off negotiations on the opening day of training camp after Jackson turned down an offer that the team said would have put him among the elite in terms of pay at his position, saying talks would resume when Jackson reported.
``There's still a lot of time and he got in a lot of good work in the offseason, and has a good grasp of what we're doing offensively,'' Linehan said. ``It's just a matter of getting him in football shape. But it does start to factor in, what the workload would be from the start.''
The Rams' other big names on offense all come with question marks attached. Bulger had more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (11) last year, while missing four games with broken ribs and a concussion, and has taken a pounding in recent seasons. Torry Holt is the NFL leader in receiving yards and receptions since 2000, but is entering his 10th year and was hampered all last season by a balky right knee.
Seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace ended the last two seasons on injured reserve and last year didn't even make it through the opener before being shelved by a shoulder problem.
Pace was one of three line starters who ended up on IR last year, a huge factor in an 0-8 start. Guard Mark Setterstrom is already out for 2008 after re-injuring his surgically repaired left knee.
The franchise has concentrated on defense in the draft recently, taking end Chris Long with the second overall pick this year and tackle Adam Carriker with 2007's first-rounder. Top pass rusher Leonard Little appears recovered from a torn ligament in his right toe that limited him to only one sack before he underwent season-ending surgery, and linebacker Will Witherspoon had a team-leading seven sacks last year while often lining up at end.
``In the last couple of years we've done a great job bringing guys in, drafting guys and putting guys in the right places,'' Witherspoon said. ``Now, it's really coming to fruition.''
Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe led the NFC with eight interceptions in a breakout year. The Rams expect something similar from cornerback Tye Hill, the first-round pick in 2006 who was limited by injuries last season.
``You worry about injuries and depth and we've got a lot of young guys,'' defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. ``But it could be a good group.''

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