FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick has spent this week scheming to stop Steven Jackson, but there was a point in time when he was interested in making the Rams leading rusher a Patriot.
Back in the spring of 2004, New England was coming off of a Super Bowl win over the Panthers and in the market for a running back. They had the 21st overall pick in the draft thanks to a trade with the Ravens, and Belichick's interest was piqued by a strong runner out of Oregon State University with a head full of dreadlocks.
"I went out to Las Vegas and met with Steven out there -- he's from Las Vegas," Belichick said Thursday. "I went out there and met with him and spent pretty much a whole day with him out there. He's a very impressive individual. Obviously he's a big strong kid that runs well, catches the ball very well, very good in the passing game. I think he's probably a little bit underrated in that area. Good in blitz pickup. Smart guy. Really he's had an outstanding career. He definitely was a guy we were very much interested in. Like I said, I personally spent quite a bit of time with him."
Taken as Belichick may have been, he never selected Jackson. Instead, days before the draft, the Patriots traded a second-round pick for Bengals running back Corey Dillon and then drafted University of Miami defensive lineman Vince Wilfork with the 21st pick.
That plan worked out OK. The Patriots went on to win their second-straight Super Bowl title that season, solidifying their place as one of the few dynasties in NFL history.
The Rams took Jackson with the 24th pick in 2004. Now in his ninth season, the 29-year-old has rushed for at least 1,000 yards every season except for his rookie season.
Years after pursuing him, Belichick still holds Jackson in high regard, especially his ability to remain relatively healthy despite the punishment he's taken as a result of the massive workload he's assumed in St. Louis.
"It's impressive," Belichick said. "It's real impressive. He's had 1000 yards it seems like every year, right? Close to it. But he dishes punishment out. I think he gives out probably about as much as he takes. It's not like that with all backs. He's got the quickness to be elusive on the second level, avoid guys. He's also got the power to put his shoulder down and run through guys. He's a hard guy to tackle. As I said, his production in the passing game is very good, too. Not just screens, but route running, getting out there, getting open, and beating linebackers. And he's a great target for the quarterback to throw to. He's not a little 5-(foot)-8 guy you're trying to find out there. He's a big, tall, strong guy that's got a lot of range and a big catch radius and big hands."
Though much has been made of the Patriots' struggles against the passing game, the focus of the defense this week is on slowing Jackson.
"They got a good running back there," Rob Ninkovich said. "He can make a few plays as well so as a defense we gotta do a good job of stopping him first . . . We pride ourselves on stopping the run first. As long as you do that and kind of make the game more one-dimensional, it's just going to help your defense in the long run."
The Patriots have made good on their efforts at stopping opposing rushers so far this season. They've seen some of the league's best -- Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Buffalo's CJ Spiller, Baltimore's Ray Rice and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch -- but they've allowed just 86 yards rushing per game on average, eighth best in the NFL.
"I prefer a team that loves to run the ball," Vince Wilfork said. "Especially a scheme running team, because, you know, you get a little dirty. You don't have to worry too much about cut blocks, zone runs and stuff, reading. That's a football team that wants to line up and smack you in the mouth . . . St. Louis is another team that wants to line up and run the ball three straight times, four straight times if they're successful doing it."
Jackson is averaging 3.8 yards per carry this season and has just one touchdown, but the Patriots know that he has the ability to be one of the few backs to hurt them to this point in the season.
"He's a big guy. He's strong. When you have some size and speed it definitely makes it a lot harder to tackle somebody," Ninkovich said. "You just gotta make sure you really get your hat on him."