Wednesday, August 17, 2011 12:15 am

On the final Sunday of the 2008 season, Atlanta was fighting for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. For the Rams, Jim Haslett was fighting to have the "interim" tag removed from his head-coaching title, having taken over for Scott Linehan four games into the season.

The 2-13 Rams were poised for a huge upset, taking a 27-24 lead into the final minutes of play in the Georgia Dome. But with just under 4 minutes remaining, running back Jerious Norwood took a handoff from quarterback Matt Ryan and whoosh! off he went for a 45-yard touchdown.

The Falcons pulled out a 31-27 victory, Haslett was out, and Steve Spagnuolo was in three weeks later as Rams head coach.

"I really don't remember the play," Norwood said. "What was it? Was it a kickoff return?"

No, a long run.

"I don't remember the play," Norwood said. "I've had so many, man."

As the saying goes, it's not bragging if it's fact. Even in an NFL career plagued by injuries the past two seasons, Norwood has had a ton of long gainers. In that '08 season alone, Norwood had runs of 45, 44, and 40 yards. He had a 67-yard reception. And kickoff returns of 92, 85, 55, and 54 yards.

The 92-yard kickoff return came in that same game against the Rams. With 32 seconds left in the first half, the Falcons trailed 14-10 when Norwood fielded a kickoff at the goal line and ran all the way to the St. Louis 8. After an incomplete pass by Ryan, Norwood ran off left tackle for an 8-yard TD with 11 seconds left. Just like that, Atlanta had a 17-14 lead.

"Norwood's very underrated," Rams cornerback Ron Bartell said after that game. "He's so fast and explosive."

Which is exactly why the Rams quietly coveted him in free agency this year. Norwood was the fastest running back at the NFL scouting combine in 2006 when he was clocked at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He's only the third player in NFL history whose first three touchdowns in the league all came from 60 yards or more out. In 2007, he set an Atlanta single-season mark for combined yards (2,207), of which 1,317 came on kickoff returns.

For a Rams team that desperately needs big-play potential at the skill position, the Rams are hoping that Norwood can provide some sizzle.

"Jerious can do a little bit of everything," said Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who was in Atlanta's front office when the Falcons drafted Norwood. "He'll run the ball a little bit. He'll be on third down. He'll be a kickoff return guy. We'll probably have him out as a wideout a little bit, try and get the ball in his hands.

"So he's like a home-run hitter, knock on wood, if the injuries are behind him. That's the only thing that's slowed his career down is injuries. So maybe they're behind him and we'll get the old Jerious."

Two concussions and a hip injury limited Norwood to 10 games, and a then-career low 252 yards rushing, in 2009. His 2010 campaign ended in Game 2, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arizona.

When asked if had his 4.3 speed back, Norwood chuckled and said, "I got it, baby."

He looked quick in the Rams' preseason opener against Indianapolis, carrying eight times for 37 yards, including one carry that gained 17 yards.

Rams running backs coach Sylvester Croom, who knows Norwood better than most, says he's not all the way back from the knee injury.

"But he's getting there," Croom said. "He's made a lot of improvement in the last week. It was good to get him in the ballgame the other night. He showed signs of coming back, but he's not 100 percent. But we hope he'll get there soon."

Croom was head coach at Mississippi State for two seasons when Norwood played there and thinks highly of him.

"He's an outstanding person," Croom said. "Great work ethic. He's just hungry to be an outstanding football player. He's just a plain ole country boy from down in Mississippi. That's what he is; he takes a great deal of pride in it. He likes to play football, hunt, and fish."

Coming off knee surgery, and with Michael Turner firmly entrenched as the feature back in Atlanta, Norwood faced an uncertain future had he returned to the Falcons. The chance to be reunited with Croom in St. Louis was a drawing card.

"I've been in Atlanta, for what, five years now," Norwood said. "My contract was up, and St. Louis showed the most interest. So of course, Coach Croom being my college coach, he called me first and told me he wanted me down here. So we got everything set up, and I'm just glad to be here."

Physically, Norwood says he feels fine, although the Rams did rest the knee by having him sit out Monday's practice. He was back on the field Tuesday. He's part of what suddenly looks like a deep and talented backfield behind Pro Bowler Steven Jackson and former NFL rookie of the year Cadillac Williams.

"Yeah, we're stacked up pretty good in that backfield," Norwood said. "It's only going to help the team out in the long run. Hopefully, nobody gets hurt, everybody stays healthy and we'll finish the season strong."

Jackson sits out

Jackson sat out practice Tuesday with what Spagnuolo described as "just a little bit of left hip soreness." Jackson could be back on the field today.

Linebacker Brady Poppinga suffered a cut on his lower right leg. He received several stitches and returned to the practice.

Left tackle Rodger Saffold (back) and left guard Jacob Bell (back) were out; they were replaced by Adam Goldberg and Hank Fraley, respectively, with the first unit.

Others who missed practice were wide receiver Donnie Avery (knee), running back Eddie Wide (shoulder), wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker (groin), safety Mikail Baker (knee) and defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo (back).


Linebacker Bryan Kehl had two interceptions in team drills. "He's had a really good camp," Spagnuolo said. ... Plenty of tickets remain for Saturday night's preseason game vs. Tennessee at the Edward Jones Dome. ... Today's open practice begins at 4:30 p.m. Parking and admission are free.