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Gordon: Opportunity knocks for long-struggling Rams ..
BY JEFF GORDON
So this is what it has come to in the NFC Worst, er, West:
The Rams are now the team to beat in this division “race.” A team that lost 42 times in 48 games the previous three seasons is finally ready to win, despite suffering a spate of injuries that forced week-to-week adjustments by the second-year coaching staff.
They should even their record at 6-6 by taking advantage of the Not-So-Big Red on Sunday in Arizona. The Cardinals have lost six consecutive games, reverting to their pre-Warner form.
The Gridbirds have massive problems on both sides of the ball. Their morale is lagging, as you saw in quarterback Derek Anderson’s postgame detonation Monday night. A dark cloud has settled over the franchise in the Valley of the Sun.
This game is there for the taking now that the Rams have finally WON A ROAD GAME and cleared that mental and emotional hurdle.
Last Sunday’s victory at Denver, however harrowing, was a watershed moment for the Steve Spagnuolo Regime. The Rams flew home believing they could take a run at the division title.
“It’s a lot of fun,” running back Steven Jackson told reporters during his weekly media session. “I was talking to my dad last night, and he said it feels good to play football at this level, having games going into December that really mean something outside of your own personal pride. It’s something that I’m looking forward to, this next month of football.
“The games are going to get bigger as the weeks go on, but first things first. You have to win each game for them to get bigger. I think everyone’s looking forward to the challenge. The locker room feels great right now.”
This team has been learning how to win before your eyes. Instead of finding ways to fail, they are figuring out how to prevail.
Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford has gotten better from week to week, allowing the offense to become more aggressive. The receiving corps has made steady improvement the past four weeks.
The return of explosive rookie Danario Alexander adds a downfield threat to the group. Bradford just recorded his first 300-yard passing game and his first three-touchdown performance.
The loss of rookie tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was a blow, for sure, but Bradford should overcome that. He is doing a nice job spreading the ball around to his targets. Tight ends Daniel Fells and Billy Bajema both operate well in the ball-control passing game.
If the Rams can do a better job running the ball – by run-blocking more consistently up front, perhaps with John Greco getting some reps at right guard – this offense could finally come all the way out of its shell.
By pounding the ball on the ground more effectively, the Rams would make the play-action passing game all the more effective. That, in turn, should create more opportunity for Jackson.
The defense remains vulnerable to big passing plays, due to the inexperience at cornerback, the limitations at outside linebacker and the lack of a quality pass coverage safety to play next to Oshiomogho Atogwe.
But that unit has also toughened up against the run and improved its pass rush, lessening the reliance on blitzing. Defensive end Chris Long is delivering his breakout season and veterans Fred Robbins and James Hall are playing at near-Pro Bowl levels.
Despite all the trials and tribulations of this season, the Rams have moved out of the league cellar and back into the middle of the pack. Next season offers great promise as young players mature, injured players return and owner Stan Kroenke opens his vault for offseason spending.
In the meantime, the Rams could still meet all their goals for this season. They could dig all the way out from 1-15, which seemed like an unthinkable concept back in Week 1 of this season.
If that doesn’t inspire this group to play an “A” game Sunday, nothing will. Their time has finally come.
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