Justin Jackson sat in his hotel room early Sunday when his phone buzzed.
The Chargers were hours away from kickoff, but Melvin Gordon had something he had to say to his fellow running backs.
Gordon remained behind in Los Angeles as he continues to rehab his knee, and he remains week-to-week going forward. Thus, he sent a text to the running backs with a simple message.
“Melvin’s our leader,” Jackson said. “He’s a leader on the team and in the running back room, so he stayed in it with us, made sure we were up on all our stuff. He wasn’t able to make (the trip), but he gave us a text this morning that gave us all confidence. He has full confidence in us, and that gave us confidence to go out there and play. It was just, ‘I believe in you guys. (Derek) Watt’s going to go out there and lead you guys, and just do what you do.’ That’s basically what he said.”
Gordon’s text came to fruition as the Bolts ended up outgaining the Steelers on the ground with 85 yards to only 65 by Pittsburgh.
However, it certainly didn’t start out the way the Chargers envisioned as they mustered only two yards on nine carries over the first 30 minutes of play.
Balance has been a huge part of the offense’s success, and they knew in order to muster any type of comeback they needed to get their ground game going.
Enter Justin Jackson.
After not having a touch in the first half, the seventh-round pick sparked the team’s ground attack over the final two quarters. He toted the rock eight times for 63 yards, averaging 7.9 yards per carry along with his first career touchdown. Jackson also hauled in a pivotal 19-yard reception to set up his memorable 18-yard TD.
“Justin gave us a little boost there, and the guys were blocking the heck out of it as well,” said Philip Rivers. “And gosh the cutbacks, a couple of those cuts he made (were impressive), and a few other ones were big. It’s not surprising to us but seeing it like we saw it tonight on Sunday Night Football was awesome to see.”
Pittsburgh clearly didn’t know what hit them.
But, just like Rivers noted, while Jackson took the Steelers by surprise, his performance came as no show to Russell Okung and the rest of the Bolts.
“Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all,” Okung said. “This kid goes against the scout defense every single week and takes a lot of their crap and he runs the ball, catches the ball out the backfield and does what he’s asked to do. When he comes in the game and essentially does the same thing, I’m not surprised at all.”
Overall, Jackson accounted for 82 of the Chargers’ 231 second half yards on just nine touches. While he produced several highlight reel plays, as you might imagine, his 18-yard touchdown scamper was one for the memory banks.
After all, it was the first touchdown of his career, and was indicative of everything the 6-0, 199-pound running back is known for. Jackson showcased tremendous vision on the play, exploding through a gaping hole off left guard before using his shiftiness and power to find the end zone.
“I just wanted to hit it fast,” he said. “I got to the second level. I can’t tell you what happened after that.… When my number was called, it was just go out there and make a play. It’s football, man. It’s what we live for. Being in that type of environment, the game on the line, it’s what you dream about, right? But you don’t make it that big. You just go out there and you play. You don’t hear anything, you just play.”
Sunday’s showing was even more meaningful considering what Jackson had to overcome over the past few months. The running back missed virtually all of training camp and preseason due to injury, and thus began the year on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late September.
Still, touches in real game action were few and far between, meaning he had to prove his worth each week in practice. He did just that, which is why the Bolts weren’t surprised to see his success vs. the Steelers.
“Even getting to this point, I had to show what I could do in practice because I didn’t really get a preseason because I was hurt,” he explained. “So, what I wanted to do was come out and just show them that I could do what I can do, but I have to do that in practice. Also, just getting used to the speed of the game and everything, I had to do all that in practice because I didn’t have a preseason. That’s how you go out. It’s football. It don’t matter if there’s 30,000 people in the stands or nobody, you just go out and play and that’s what I love doing.”