By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/24/2005


For a good chunk of the summer, they have piled up the frequent flyer miles and the room service meals.

"It seems like we've been on the road for the last month," Rams defensive tackle Damione Lewis said.

"And it's not like it's been short road trips," linebacker Trev Faulk added.

In the preseason, it was San Diego on Aug. 23, and then Detroit six days later. Once the regular season started, there was San Francisco on Sept. 11 and Arizona on Sept. 18.

In between, the only home respite was a Sept. 2 pit stop for the Governor's Cup game against Kansas City.

But now it's fall. Thirty of the 32 NFL teams already have played at least one home game. (It would be 31 of 32 had not Hurricane Katrina sent the New Orleans Saints to New York for what otherwise would have been their home opener against the Giants.)

On Sunday, the Rams finally get their turn, opening their 11th home season as a St. Louis-based franchise against their old Super Bowl foes, the Tennessee Titans. Kickoff is noon at theEdward Jones Dome.

"I'm looking forward to waking up in my own bed on Sunday morning," defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said during the week. "Taking that drive down to the dome. Having all the fans greet me when we get out there in the parking lot area. I'm looking forward to walking out in the dome for warmups. I'm looking forward to running onto the field with the crowd going crazy."

Since the start of the 1999 season, there has been no better home-court advantage in the NFL than the dome. None. Including playoff games, the Rams are 43-10 in the great indoors over that span. In the parity-driven NFL, that's such a huge number - 43-10 - that not even the traditional 12th-man cliche seems fitting.

"You just feel like you've got the 13th man out there," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "So that'll help us out a lot. It pumps you up."

The Rams come home with a 1-1 record, and with as many questions unanswered as answered:

* Is the run defense as good as it looked in the first two games? In the base defense, with new linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley on the field, opposing ballcarriers gained next to nothing in San Francisco and Arizona.

* Which special teams unit shows up Sunday? The abysmal group that gave up one big play after another in San Francisco? Or the rock-solid unit that helped claw out a win last week in Arizona?

* And is this the week the offense - sometimes dynamic and sometimes mystifying to date - enjoys a breakout game?

"We could easily be 2-0 right now," cornerback Travis Fisher said. "But I see potential for this football team to probably not lose another game. We're on the rise. I can see us on the rise. We're not there right now, but we are getting better and we're getting better fast."

It will take continued improvement to get past 1-1 Tennessee, which is trying to find itself after jettisoning several starters due to salary cap woes.

Every defensive mainstay from the squad that lost to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV are gone - Jevon Kearse, Samari Rolle, Eddie Robinson, Blaine Bishop and more. But Jeff Fisher remains the head coach, and as long as that's the case, you can expect certain things from Tennessee.

"I know the defense will be physical," Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce said. "They'll come out and want to hit. They'll come out and want to finish tackles."

Running back Steven Jackson, for one, is looking forward to the challenge.

"This is probably one of the best 'd-lines' we'll face all year," he said. "Very active linebacker corps. So it's going to be interesting. They try to do a lot of different things to confuse your blocking scheme. They want to set the tempo and intimidate you."

But as he settles into his role as Rams feature back, Jackson would love nothing better than to roll a couple of 7s against Tennessee.

"That's my signature now," he explained.

In case you missed it, when S. Jackson scored last week against Arizona, he shook the football like a pair of dice, and then "rolled" it onto the turf at Sun Devil Stadium.

Where did that come from?

"Vegas, baby!" Jackson said.

He's from Las Vegas, and his father is a retired casino pit boss.

Of course, the last thing the Rams want to do is roll craps against the Titans. Especially with road games looming against the Giants and Indianapolis. And home games on the horizon against NFC West rival Seattle and recent nemesis New Orleans.

But first things first. As Trev Faulk says, "At the end of Sunday afternoon, we just want to be 2-1."

For now, that would allow the Rams to rest easy - on their own beds, no less.