Sunday, October 19, 2008

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By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Call it confidence, call it swagger, call it any of the other clichéd or overused synonyms for self-assurance. Whatever it’s called, the Rams suddenly have copious amounts of it.

One week after a surprising two-point win on the road against Washington, St. Louis pieced together by far its most dominant and complete performance of the season Sunday against favored Dallas.

When the dust settled, the Rams had a legitimate, bonafide winning streak after manhandling the Cowboys in a 34-14 win at the Edward Jones Dome.

“I think anytime you get a win like we did in Washington, you get a little renewed confidence and I thought they played extremely well today in all three phases,” coach Jim Haslett said. “We probably could have done some things better but all three phases played well today and that’s why we won the game.”

The Rams improved to 2-4 on the season with the win while Dallas dropped to 4-3 and lost its third consecutive game.

Sure, the Rams’ win against the Redskins helped generate some positive vibes that carried into the past week and Sunday’s game victory against the Cowboys but there’s plenty more to gaining confidence than a two-point victory in the nation’s capital.

Even in that victory against Washington, the Rams hadn’t quite put it all together yet. While the defense was racking up takeaways and keeping the Redskins out of the end zone and the special teams was excelling in the kicking game, the Rams still couldn’t find the end zone consistently and were struggling to win the field position battle.

In other words, the Rams hadn’t had the type of complete team performance required to win games in convincing fashion.

For one week, that was just fine because the Rams simply needed a win no matter how it came.

This week, the Rams defense talked about building on a strong performance in Washington while the offense insisted it was on the verge of a breakout and the special teams vowed to find ways to better affect field position.

It all came together in short order in a game the Rams won by their largest margin since a similar 20-point beat down on the final day of the 2006 season.

So, what’s different?

“I think everything,” quarterback Marc Bulger said. “Our special teams are playing better, I think nine times in the first four games we were inside the 10 on field position. We were in third and long 11 times the first few weeks. The defense wasn’t getting turnovers. Now they are getting turnovers, they are getting stops, we are getting field position, we are making plays down the field, we are running the ball better. It’s everything and I think that comes with confidence and you get into a rhythm and guys feed off each other.”

Perhaps nothing was more encouraging for the Rams than the offensive outburst that occurred Sunday. That unit hadn’t put up more than 19 points in a game this season but it wasted no time making a statement against the Cowboys.

After falling behind 7-0 quickly on a 1-yard touchdown run from Dallas running back Marion Barber, Bulger and Co. went to work on finding an answer.

Haslett has repeatedly emphasized the importance of answering the bell when something bad happens and the Rams offense did it in short order.

After three plays and a penalty gave the Rams a first down at Dallas’ 42, offensive coordinator Al Saunders called for a deep pass to rookie receiver Donnie Avery.

Given plenty of time to throw, Bulger stepped up in the pocket and laid out a perfect pass to Avery who had beaten the safeties deep down the middle of the field.

Avery hauled it in for a touchdown and tied the game at 7.

“We saw some vulnerabilities there in the secondary that Donnie could outrun anything,” receiver Torry Holt said. “And he called it and Marc trusted Donnie, the offensive line did a great job of giving him time and from that point on, it was a wash. It’s that contagious vibe, that energy and what I feel like we need. As long as we continue to execute and have energy on a day to day basis, we give ourselves a shot and we were able to do that today.”

Nobody was happier with Avery’s burst than running back Steven Jackson, who was the direct beneficiary of Avery’s ability to stretch the field.

Avery’s touchdown might as well have shut it down for Dallas for the rest of the game as it provided the first seven points in an avalanche of 34 unanswered points.

That long pass opened things up for Jackson to take over and that’s exactly what he did. Jackson followed Avery’s touchdown with scoring runs of 8, 1 and a 56-yard backbreaker that effectively ended Dallas’ hopes of winning.

Jackson finished the day with 160 yards on 25 carries, chipping in another 16 yards on a pair of receptions.

With the big plays coming in bunches offensively, the Rams defense did more than its share to contribute.

“We wanted four big plays on offense and on defense we tried to eliminate big plays because their offense has the most in the league,” Haslett said. “I thought we accomplished those, we got some turnovers on defense and we got some sacks.”

The Rams defense harassed Dallas quarterback Brad Johnson for most of the day, sacking him three times and pressuring him on 11 occasions. That group also intercepted Johnson three times and forced Barber to cough up a fumble.

Not only did that group limit big plays by the Dallas offense, the big plays it made forced Dallas into multiple mistakes and gave the Rams a short field time and again.

The Rams started their scoring drives, respectively, at their 38, the Dallas 44, the Dallas 17, their 20, their 37 and their 35. All told, the Rams average starting field position was their 37 while Dallas regularly started at its 28.

“We are preaching just running to the ball and trying to create turnovers and hustling and getting to the ball,” Little said. “I think guys took that to heart.”

There’s no doubt that plenty has changed when it comes to the Rams in the past few weeks.

St. Louis gained a half game on idle Arizona, a full game on San Francisco and could gain a game on Seattle, who plays Tampa Bay in the Sunday night game.

By the time the night is over, the Rams could be in second place in the NFC West Division and right back in the race as they head to Foxborough to play the Patriots next week.

“We are kind of clicking in all the areas,” Haslett said. “We have got things we need to clean up and keep working on to try to get better because we have a great challenge ahead of us next week at New England.”

The good news is that the Rams are back in the mix and improving every week. On Sunday, that was the word of the day.