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NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - INSIDE SLANT
When a team in the NFL is eliminated from the playoffs, it can sometimes be a challenge to remain focused and, as former New York Jets coach Herman Edwards once famously said, "play to win the game."
Veteran leadership helps, and that was evident in the way the St. Louis Rams played in their 26-17 victory over New Orleans Sunday. Now, they hope to continue it and finish at 8-8 with games remaining against Tampa Bay and Seattle.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has been one veteran making sure rookies and other younger players understand the importance of working to finish strong.
After the Rams lost to Arizona in Week 14, the game that ended any longshot playoff hopes they had, Laurinaitis revealed what he told rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Said Laurinaitis, "I told Alec this: 'I have been a part of some teams where you get mathematically eliminated from playoffs where guys check out and the important thing for us as such a young team is there's no checking out.'
"I think it's very important. Each year is different. And you have to keep people accountable and call them out because it's (about) how do you keep your green arrow as a player going up? I think that's the important thing."
Coaches impart that same message, but it is far more impactful when it also comes from inside the locker room.
As coach Jeff Fisher said, "We're going to get better and ... that's what we're going to do. We're going to get better. We're going to take it one game at a time and we're going to get better."
Laurinaitis reiterated that thought, saying. "Everybody in the building is evaluating how do we get better as a team. That's the way the NFL works. I promise you that I am going to make sure the guys on my side of the ball are getting better and there will be no quit in us. We have to do things better and smarter. It sounds simple, but we have to do things better."
Quarterback Kellen Clemens said of the team's younger players, "They're playing beyond their years. They really are. You talk about Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Zac Stacy, just to talk about the offensive guys and Benny Cunningham when he comes in and fills in for us. Isaiah Pead is getting things going now. It's really been fun to watch how they have ... you start at the bottom as a rookie when you start at OTAs, but to see how they have progressed the last few months and even the last few weeks for those guys who are getting opportunities. It's been great to watch. It goes back to the scouting process all the way back in February when these guys are coming out of college. This is going to be a good football team for a lot of years because we have a lot of young talent that is really starting to hit their stride."
Clemens was also asked about the potential of winning more games than the seven the Rams won last year. He said, matter-of-factly, "I think really at this point, we're still just focused on Tampa. Let's go out and see if we can beat Tampa. We want to finish strong at home. I know that's important to us, to be able to do that for our fans. So, that's our focus right now, go out and get a win against what's a very good Tampa Bay opponent."
SERIES HISTORY: 19th regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 10-8. The Rams and Buccaneers haven't played in St. Louis since 2004 when the Rams won 28-21. Since then, there have been three games in Tampa Bay with the Rams winning one, 28-13, last season. The Rams have won just two of the last eight games in the series.
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - NOTES, QUOTES
--Robert Quinn moved into second place among NFL defensive ends in fan voting for the Pro Bowl. Voting at nfl.com ends Dec. 26. Quinn, with 315,973 votes, trails Houston's J.J. Watt (363,433). He is 1,734 votes ahead of Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams. Eight defensive ends will be voted to the Pro Bowl, regardless of conference. The fan voting counts one-third, with player and coach voting also counting one-third.
Rams left tackle Jake Long is fifth and punt returner Tavon Austin seventh. Punter Johnny Hekker, who leads the NFL in net punting average, isn't in the top 10.
--The Rams organization had T-shirts printed to promote Hekker for the Pro Bowl. The shirt has a photo of Hekker in the middle. Above the photo, it says, "Help Hekker Get Lei'd," and below the photo, it says, "Vote for the real Johnny Football."
Hekker said making the Pro Bowl isn't that important to him, but said, "It's cool that they are supporting me."
T-shirts were in everyone's locker last Friday, but by Wednesday, about 17 were still on their hangers. When that was pointed out to Hekker, he jokingly said, "They just like looking at them. It's like when you get something new like a pair of shoes, you don't want to wear them at first."
--Tight end Cory Harkey has had a growing role in the Rams' offense, including often lining up as a fullback.
Harkey was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012, and coach Jeff Fisher said the team evaluated him with the thought he could also fill the fullback role when needed.
Said Fisher, "Yeah, we saw it. We saw the athletic ability. He's really done a nice job handling everything as a fullback; the true fullback position. But he also does everything very well on the line of scrimmage. He's athletic, he's smart, and he works. It's important to him. Rob's (tight ends coach Rob Boras) done a really good job with him."
Harkey was able to get added reps in the offseason and training camp while tight end Lance Kendricks was sidelined by a knee injury. Then, he had to overcome his own injury when he fractured a bone near his knee in an Aug. 24 preseason game against Denver. Originally expected to miss at least four or four weeks, he was back on the practice field in 18 days.
On Harkey's development, Fisher said, "It started at OTAs, camp, and then, it went through the end of the preseason and we almost lost him in the preseason with that injury. We were very lucky that wasn't significant. But, we saw the progress prior to him getting hurt. He fought back off the injury, came back, and has played well for us."
This past Sunday against New Orleans, Harkey scored on a 31-yard touchdown play in which all of the yards came after the catch. Afterward, he celebrated by going into a "windup" and pretending to throw a pitch.
That's because Harkey's father is Mike Harkey, a former major-league pitcher who is currently pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Harkey told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "It was definitely a tribute to my Pop. I told him I would do that next time I scored. He was really pumped about it too. He was watching on TV. I talked to him after the game."
--There is a school of thought that second-year cornerback Janoris Jenkins has regressed from his rookie season, but coach Jeff Fisher disagrees.
Said Fisher, "He's definitely improving, no doubt. Now, he doesn't have the four interception returns for touchdowns that he had last year, but play-in and play-out, week-in and week-out, he's definitely improved significantly over last year."
For the record, Jenkins had three interception returns for touchdowns in 2012 and another on a fumble return.
Against New Orleans, Jenkins played 83 of 86 snaps after not practicing during the week because of a back injury.
Said Fisher, "It was very, very impressive for him to come out."
BY THE NUMBERS: .500 - The last season the Rams were .500 was in 2006. They finished 7-8-1 last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That would be amazing. I don't know where he's at. That would be great. Certainly, the way that we lean on the run game, hopefully it's possible. Hopefully he gets his carries. But again, we're going to win however we can win and we'll let the individual stats kind of play themselves out." - QB Kellen Clemens on the prospect of RB Zac Stacy reaching 1,000 yard rushing for the season. Stacy needs 146 yards in the final two games of the season. He has averaged 85 yards per game since becoming the starter in Week 5.
NFC PLAYOFFS AT A GLANCE:
CLINCHED: Seattle - playoff spot
Seattle clinches NFC West division and home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:
1) SEA win or tie OR
2) SF loss or tie
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans clinches NFC South division and a first-round bye with:
1) NO win
New Orleans clinches a playoff spot with:
1) ARI loss OR
2) NO tie + SF loss or tie OR
3) NO tie + ARI tie OR
4) SF loss + ARI tie
Carolina clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CAR win OR
2) CAR tie + ARI loss OR
3) CAR tie + SF loss OR
4) ARI loss + SF loss
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
San Francisco clinches a playoff spot with:
1) SF win OR
2) ARI loss OR
3) SF tie + ARI tie
Philadelphia clinches NFC East division with:
1) PHI win + DAL loss or tie OR
2) PHI tie + DAL loss
Chicago clinches NFC North division with:
1) CHI win + DET loss or tie + GB loss
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Tavon Austin is out of his walking boot, but still did not practice Wednesday and Thursday because of an ankle injury. Said coach Jeff Fisher, "He's getting better."
--RB Daryl Richardson (thigh) remains sidelined and did not practice Wednesday and Thursday.
--CB Janoris Jenkins, who played Sunday despite missing practice all week because of a back issue and practiced full Wednesday, was limited Thursday.
--LB Will Witherspoon did not practice Thursday because of an illness.
OFFICIAL FRIDAY INJURY REPORT:
--PROBABLE: T Kelvin Beachum (knee), WR Jerricho Cotchery (shoulder), T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), DE Brett Keisel (foot), DT Steve McLendon (ankle), TE Heath Miller (not injury related), S Troy Polamalu (not injury related), WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot)
GREEN BAY PACKERS
--OUT: TE Brandon Bostick (foot), DE Johnny Jolly (shoulder, neck), QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone)
--QUESTIONABLE: DE C.J. Wilson (ankle)
--PROBABLE: LB Brad Jones (ankle), RB Eddie Lacy (ankle), DE Mike Neal (abdomen), LB Nick Perry (foot), DT Ryan Pickett (knee)
As has been their plan for the last 10 games, the Rams will work to control the game with their ground game, and defensively stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback. The Rams defense has moved up to 12th in the league in rushing yards per game (105.4) and eighth in yards per rush (3.9).
Led by Quinn's 15.0, the Rams have 42 sacks and are fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Rams DRE Robert Quinn vs. Buccaneers LT Donald Penn - Whoever Quinn lines up against becomes a matchup to watch. He wrecked New Orleans' game plan last Sunday and was almost unblockable. Penn is a good left tackle, but Quinn is relentless in his pressure. Bucs quarterbacks have been sacked 38 times this season.
--Rams CBs Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson vs. Buccaneers WR Vincent Jackson - Despite Tampa Bay's struggles this season, Jackson has put up strong numbers with 69 receptions for 1,019 yards (15.9 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns. Jenkins and Johnson will have their hands full.