Tuesday, October 31, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Using a formula focused on ball control offense with some big plays mixed in and an opportunistic defense centered on creating turnovers and great field position, the Rams jumped out to a 4-1 start under new coach Scott Linehan.

That formula worked well and had the Rams on a collision course with Seattle for supremacy in the NFC West Division. But things changed in the second half of the Oct. 15 loss to Seattle and carried over to Sunday’s loss to San Diego. The turnovers, though not much in quantity, began to bounce the other way and the defense has been unable to keep up its torrid turnover pace.

At 4-3 and on a two-game losing streak, the Rams will try rediscover the formula.

“I think there are things that we were doing really well early in the year, and we’ve got to get back to those,” Linehan said. “One of them is, and you can’t always rely on it, but we were getting our hands on a lot of balls and getting a lot of turnovers (and) creating favorable field position for our football team. That doesn’t excuse missed tackles and things like that. We’re going to work very hard at it.”

In the past two games, the Rams’ offense has continued to not turn the ball over often. They have just a pair of turnovers in those games, but the timing hasn’t been good. In Sunday’s loss, running back Stephen Davis fumbled in San Diego territory just as it seemed the team was headed for a tying touchdown.

Meanwhile, the defense which had so consistently come up with key turnovers at the most important times has been unable to continue that.

“What we’ve got to do, though, is that we’ve got to go back and really say ‘This is what we were doing well early in the year,’ and rely heavily on those things and remind ourselves, ‘This was our identity, and is going to continue to be our identity,’” Linehan said. “That’s what you do anytime when you have a ball game like this. You can’t sugar coat it. You know what you were deficient at. They ran the ball right at us and were very successful, and got some matchups in the passing game that were favorable.”

Perhaps more disheartening in Sunday’s game was the way the Rams struggled to stop the run. San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson, as he has done in many games throughout his career, posted 183 yards on 25 carries with a pair of touchdowns. That performance pushed the Rams back to 27th in the league against the run.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said the defense simply didn’t execute against Tomlinson and Co.

“When we messed up, we messed up as a whole,” Haslett said. “It was a good team effort from that standpoint. We didn’t execute very well yesterday to be honest with you. We were inconsistent in all of the areas. Fundamentally we weren’t sound.”

The news wasn’t all bad though for the Rams. At the end of the day, a 4-3 record has them tied with Seattle for first place in the division. The offense posted 412 total yards against the league’s best defense and there are still plenty of opportunities for the Rams to solidify a spot in the NFC’s elite.

Quarterback Marc Bulger is second in the league in passer rating and continues to have huge days and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa is expected to return from a broken hand.

Of course, there is plenty of work to be done for St. Louis to get where it wants to go. There’s little doubt that the Rams have faced plenty of adversity within games this season, but this is the first time in the Linehan era the team has lost back-to-back games.

“Essentially, we really didn’t lose our position that we actually started the day in,” Linehan said. “If you can handle that and then respond correctly, which is the critical part of that, it really works out in our favor that yesterday nobody in our division was successful. We’ve got to take advantage of that and play well this next week.”

As usual, there are no breaks in the schedule this week. Kansas City, a team that bears a striking resemblance to the San Diego team the Rams just played is poised for a visit to the Edward Jones Dome.

The Chiefs boast similar personnel and philosophy, including another of the league’s top running backs in Larry Johnson, who leads the league in yards from scrimmage. Like San Diego, Kansas City also has a top tight end in Tony Gonzalez and plenty of talent abound defensively.

“As the season goes on, every win means a lot,” defensive end Leonard Little said. “We know we have to start winning games because November and December are the biggest games if you want to make the playoffs.”

After the cross-state showdown, the Rams have two games at Seattle and Carolina, meaning things aren’t about to get any easier. This week’s game could go a long way in determining how far the Rams can go this season.

“Are we going to handle it maturely, and approach this week just like the others? Still keep the same competitive fire and competitive spirit, not let it effect us?” Linehan wondered. “Sometimes when you get knocked on your butt, you have to just dust yourself off and get up.”