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Bernie: Rams show new ability to fight back ..
BY BERNIE MIKLASZ Monday, October 4, 2010
Something is happening here. And what it is ain't exactly clear. But the young and restless Rams are suddenly 2-2 and raising a commotion. These rambunctious kids won't sit down or be quiet. They refuse to do as they're told. They play too rough. They're breaking furniture, tearing up the lawn, getting blood all over the place and causing headaches for their elders.
This is most unusual. Aren't the Rams supposed to serve as every NFL team's favorite homecoming opponent? During their recent 1-27 stretch of horrifically played football that severely damaged fan interest in the St. Louis market, the Rams were the patsies, the weaklings who couldn't or wouldn't fight back.
Well, the times are changing. These Rams are furious and have an attitude. These fellas show no respect, no respect at all. The same old sorry Rams have given way to the newer, younger and unapologetic Rams. They are not sorry about anything. They hit back.
Last week it was Donovan McNabb and the Washington Redskins who went down in a heap on the carpet in St. Louis. This week, Matt Hasselbeck and the Seattle Seahawks took the drop.
McNabb and Hasselbeck are proud, accomplished quarterbacks who have played in multiple Pro Bowls. Each has won an NFC championship. These quarterbacks haven't had to worry much about the Rams - as in, not at all. This is no longer true.
"They're a lot better than they've been," Hasselbeck said after the Rams' 20-3 victory at the Edward Jones Dome. "And they're building something here."
As we said earlier, what the Rams are building isn't exactly clear. Is it a playoff contender? It's probably too early for that. The Rams have played three of their first four games at home and the list of opponents has not included the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 1970s "Steel Curtain" era Pittsburgh Steelers.
But then again, the Rams do reside in the Candy Land of the NFC West. In the NFC West, imperfect teams are given a perfectly good opportunity to move up. It's not as if the Rams will be overmatched or outclassed in matchups against Seattle, Arizona or San Francisco. So why can't the Rams hang around a while, be a nuisance, win some games and see what transpires?
I know this much: This sure beats showing up at the stadium to witness another public and mandatory flogging of the home team. At no point during last year's 1-15 nightmare did I show up at the stadium and expect to see a Rams victory. And now there's at least a chance of seeing a victory. Maybe even a good chance. There's realistic hope. And scenes of better days.
The Rams could easily be 4-0. And over the last two weeks the Rams didn't just win games. They dominated, beating Washington by 14 and Seattle by 17, outscoring their victims 26-3 in the second half.
Sunday, the Rams limited Seattle to 257 yards, 2.7 yards per rushing attempt, and harassed Hasselbeck into a poor 58.9 passer rating. The Rams' defense is clearly developing a personality. Along with the instant emergence of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford as a mature leader, the play of the Rams' defense is the most substantial factor in the team's improvement.
The STL defense has allowed only four touchdowns and 52 points in four games. They have nine sacks and 10 takeaways. They've been stingy in the red zone. And they've clamped down on third down. During their two-game winning streak, the Rams allowed only five conversions in 25 third-down plays. That's sick.
"We've got some good guys, some hard-working guys, a good mix of veterans and young guys," defensive end Chris Long said. "Overall we just want to be a blue-collar defense that's in the right place, that's got heart at the right times. We're not going to panic. Guys who have been here have seen what it's like to really get your butt kicked. Now if we take one on the chin during the game, we're like All right, let's move on.' Nobody panics. Everybody sets their jaw and keeps playing."
And give credit to Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo for cultivating this team personality. His own leadership is a major component. But Spags also recruited defensive tackle Fred Robbins and safety James Butler. They played for Spagnuolo when he coordinated the NY Giants' defense, and they know what must be done. And how it must be done. They are extensions of the coach.
And we're also seeing Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole whip up a frenzied pass rush, which was the most important part of the Giants' foundation. Robbins has been a superb free-agent signing for the Rams. He's made a difference with his inside pass rush, physical all-around play and conscientious demeanor.
"Our defense has been resilient and I think part of that comes from the leadership in the huddle," Spagnuolo said. "From the veteran players who have been in these battles. And when you play well up front, and guys start believing in each other, you can overcome a lot."
In addition to Robbins and Butler, the Rams' defense has other excellent veteran leaders in defensive end James Hall and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. And there are young, formative leaders in Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.
It all makes for positive chemistry. The veterans offer advice and perspective. They stay on the young players to make sure they're taking care of responsibilities. The young pups have a seemingly endless supply of energy; the older guys tap into it. And this group is getting better as they develop cohesion and confidence.
For at least the first month of the season, it's made for a good time. The players are having fun. The fans who faithfully stood by this team are delirious. After three consecutive seasons of darkness and despair, NFL football has returned to St. Louis. It's nice to see it again
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