NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - INSIDE SLANT
After the St. Louis Rams lost to the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday, September 26, the coaching staff had some extra days to analyze where things were with the team's offense.
In the 35-11 loss to the 49ers, Rams running backs Daryl Richardson (12-for-16) and Benny Cunningham (4-for-6) combined to rush for a mere 22 yards on 16 carries.
At that stage of the season, the Rams were 1-3 after winning the season opener over Arizona, and were averaging 47.3 rushing yards per game (73 attempts for 189 yards) and 2.6 per rush. In losses to Dallas and San Francisco in the third and fourth weeks, the Rams totaled 53 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
It was clear something had to be done. Richardson had injured his foot in the game against Arizona and there wasn't much confidence in Isaiah Pead.
So it was that Zac Stacy got the start in the next game against Jacksonville and the results have been eye-opening.
In the ensuing seven games, of which the Rams have won four, they have rushed for 1,063 yards (151.9 per game) on 217 attempts (4.9 average). They have also averaged exactly 31 attempts per game.
Coach Jeff Fisher doled out credit for everyone involved when asked about the play of the offensive line in Sunday's win over the Bears in which the Rams rushed for 258 yards with 196 coming from running backs Stacy and Benny Cunningham. Fisher said, "Well, it starts upstairs. Guys have done a great job upstairs with the scheme, with the game plan and then carrying it over to the practice field. It just doesn't stop with the line. I thought our receivers did an outstanding job. You could see the effort that we got out of (wide receivers) Chris (Givens) and A.P. (Austin Pettis) on Tavon's (Austin) long run.
"It doesn't happen if it's not for them, and they did an outstanding job all day blocking. The run game's turned around a little bit. We're pleased with it, but you have to stay consistent with it and do it week after week. ... We focused in on it and we stuck with it and we emphasized it, and it's allowed us to be successful here as of late. Like I said, that's a credit to the whole group."
Cunningham, a rookie free agent who wasn't drafted largely because he suffered a season-ending injury last year at Middle Tennessee, replaced Stacy, who suffered a concussion, in the second half Sunday. Stacy rushed for 87 yards on 12 attempts in the first half, while Cunningham, added to his first-half total of 15 yards on three runs with 10-for-94 in the final two quarters.
Said Cunningham, "It's a great feeling to be productive and to help the team. The O-line did an excellent job. I just felt like they took control of the game today. On that last drive, they told me to protect the ball and they'd do the rest."
Added quarterback Kellen Clemens, "It all goes back to the offensive line. That's a veteran group. Great job by the guys up front, great job by the coaches scheming it up. Then, obviously Zac ran well again and then, when Benny came in, he stepped up in a big way for us. (Benny's) a great back; I was excited to see him get an opportunity and make the most of it."
The Rams became interested in Cunningham while watching tape of players on teams he was playing against. He suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in his knee, and after the draft, the Rams showed the most interest along with the 49ers and New York Giants.
Fisher personally called Cunningham, who said, "That meant a lot." Asked what impressed him about Cunningham, Fisher said, "Just what you're seeing now: the run skills, instincts, balance. Just a tough inside, outside runner."
Cunningham also credited trainer Reggie Scott with working with him after OTAs to be ready for training camp. Rams Park was a lonely place at that time of the year, but Cunningham stayed in town and went home only for the 4th of July, which is his mom's birthday.
As for this past Sunday's game, Cunningham said, "When Zac went down, I felt like coach Schotty (offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) definitely showed trust in me, giving me some touches, and I just tried to make the most of the opportunity. Coach Ben (running backs coach Ben Sirmans) told me it was time to put my big-boy pants on and step up.
"In practice, I always try to prepare as if I'm a starter. I'm very familiar with the offense, with the schemes, and when the O-line is opening holes like they were, there's not much a defense can do about it."
Now, Cunningham could see even more time depending on the recovery of Stacy, who missed Wednesday's practice, but did dress out. Cunningham acknowledged a healthy competition among all the running backs.
He said, "We try to push each other, while also helping each other with extra film study. If one of us isn't playing we can help the guy that is if we see something he doesn't see. If he succeeds, then we succeed as a team."
SERIES HISTORY: 128th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 62-62-3. The 49ers tied the all-time series with a 35-11 victory in St. Louis on Sept. 26. In the previous 127 games, the 49ers have outscored the Rams by a total 104 points.
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - NOTES, QUOTES
--Defensive end Chris Long was succinct in the locker room Sunday following the Rams' victory over the Chicago Bears.
"Yes, I'm glad this one is finally over," he said.
The feeling was regarding the hype during the week about playing against his brother Kyle, the starting right guard for the Bears.
"It sucked," Long said afterward. "It was great to win the game, and that's the first thing. But if what you're referring to is my brother being on the field with me -- it sucked. Nobody wants to do that. It's a blessing that we're both here. But this week was hell."
Complicating the matchup was that whenever the two players were on the field at the same time (Kyle played all 79 of Chicago's offense snaps, while Chris played 63 of those snaps), they were close but not lined up directly opposite each other.
Regarding the myriad interviews he did during the week, Chris said, "You all are doing your jobs. That's a slam-dunk story. But at the same time, I'm trying to be a productive part of this football team to help us win and not create a distraction. So it's a tightrope you want to walk.
"I mean, you want to talk about it, but at the same time you want everybody to know how focused you are about just beating the Bears. I did my job and we came out with a win, so I'm happy with that."
The two talked to each other in the days before the game, and they visited at the Bears' hotel on Saturday night.
Concluded Chris, "Then I talked to him before the game. We can separate pre-whistle to post-whistle."
--With cornerback Cortland Finnegan on injured reserve and Trumaine Johnson leaving the game against the Bears with a concussion, rookie cornerback Brandon McGee was pressed into action. McGee played 56 of the team's 79 defensive snaps. Prior to Sunday's game, he had played just five snaps on defense all season: one against Jacksonville and four against Carolina.
He picked up three crucial penalties, including one for illegal contact on third-and-22 that wiped out a Janoris Jenkins interception and led to a Bears touchdown that cut the Rams' lead to 21-14 in the second quarter.
Coach Jeff Fisher said McGee "did good." Added Fisher, "He had several penalties. The one -- the third-and-22 -- we'd like to see them officiate kind of like a 'loose five' they call it. I think it's right about seven yards and it had no effect on the play. One of the things I think has happened with Brandon downfield is that the roles he's playing in special teams, you get a little grabby here and there so he hasn't been playing any defense, but we'll get that stuff corrected. But from a physical standpoint, he filled the run well. He didn't make any mistakes, and so I thought overall with the win, considering the win, that was a good effort, first outing."
--Guard Rodger Saffold said he has noticed quarterback Kellen Clemens looking directly into the eyes of receivers when he calls pass plays in the huddle.
Asked about that, Clemens joked, "Rodger Saffold said that? The guard?"
Clemens then said, "It's something that made sense to me. If you have a specific tag or something for a specific guy to make sure that he's getting it, you make eye contact. Just kind of made sense to me. Glad that the guard noticed; hope the wide receivers notice at some point."
BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- Number of games the Rams have scored 30 or more points. All have come in the last seven games, and it is the most times they have done that in a season since 2003. Their 266 points is more than they scored in the entire seasons of 2007-2009 and 2011. Last season, they scored 299 and 289 in 2010.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I just think guys have that eye of the tiger. We have the talent and the coaches to make that run. Guys are continuing to believe. Now let's see what happens." -- Rams defensive end Robert Quinn on the team's confidence in making a late run for a possible playoff spot.
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Zac Stacy did not practice Wednesday because of a concussion suffered in Sunday's game against the Bears. Coach Jeff Fisher said Stacy was "doing well" as he goes through the league's concussion protocols. He did dress out for Wednesday's practice.
--LG Chris Williams did not practice Wednesday because of a concussion suffered in Sunday's game against the Bears. Coach Jeff Fisher said Williams was "doing well" as he goes through the league's concussion protocols. He did not dress out for Wednesday's practice, but did some light work in walk-throughs.
--CB Trumaine Johnson did not practice Wednesday because of a concussion suffered in Sunday's game against the Bears. Coach Jeff Fisher said Johnson was "doing well" as he goes through the league's concussion protocols. He did watch practice Wednesday.
--S T.J. McDonald (shin) did not practice Wednesday. McDonald started and played 73 of the team's 79 snaps Sunday after missing eight weeks with a broken bone in his leg. McDonald, who was limping in the locker room after the game, said it was just soreness.
--LB Will Witherspoon did not practice Wednesday because of something non-injury related. Witherspoon played just five snaps on special teams Sunday and has played just 10 defensive snaps since LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar returned from serving a four-game league suspension.
--DE Eugene Sims (foot) was limited in practice Wednesday.
GAME PLAN: For the Rams, the plan is fairly simple if they can execute it. Control the pace of the game on offense by running the ball on the 49ers, who are allowing just 103.5 yards per game and 3.9 per rush.
Then, keep RB Frank Gore from controlling the game for the 49ers, while also not allowing big passing plays to TE Vernon Davis or WR Michael Crabtree, who is expected to make his season debut Sunday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams running game vs. 49ers LBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman -- Bowman was all over the field in the first game this season, when Willis was out with an injury. For the Rams to have offensive success, they have to find a way to keep those linebackers from taking over the game.
Rams cornerbacks vs. 49ers passing game -- It is unknown if Johnson will be able to play for the Rams, and if he can't, the depth will be tested. CBs Janoris Jenkins and Brandon McGee will have to go against WR Anquan Boldin and possibly Crabtree. Safety Rodney McLeod could be forced into time again as the nickel corner, and the 49ers will work to find ways to take advantage of the secondary provided the offensive line can keep the Rams' defensive line away.