Rams Ready to go Big Game Hunting
By Nick Wagoner/Senior Writer

It’s been a long time since the Rams have played a meaningful football game with legitimate playoff implications this late in the season.

So long, in fact, that running back Steven Jackson, one of the most tenured players on the roster, says he himself isn’t even sure how he will react to being in one.

But that’s exactly where Jackson and the Rams are as they head to San Francisco to take on the ***** on Sunday. Simply put, when all things are considered this is the most important regular season game the Rams have played since 2004.

“Well, it’s something that I’m looking forward to learning,” Jackson said. “I’m being honest right now. To have a big game, to learn how to win as the stakes get higher, as the season goes by, it’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to the challenge. Hopefully we can keep ourselves in this position but everything goes back to what we’ve always been taught around here – one week at a time, one game at a time. But if you continue to win, the stakes get bigger.”

The stakes this week probably won’t break the Rams’ season but it sure could make it. At 4-4, the Rams have yet to get over a couple of road bumps.

First, they are winless in three tries away from the confines of the Edward Jones Dome. Second, they have yet to get over the .500 mark, a place they haven’t been since 2006.

If the Rams can come away with a win against the *****, there’s a very real possibility they could be sitting alone in first place by Sunday evening.

“We’ve been working hard to get to a point where in November and December, our games can put us in the postseason,” Jackson said. “So it’s really showing the hard work guys have been putting in, not only during the season, but OTAs and training camp. Guys are starting to come together, and guys are excited.”

It’s only fitting that a game of such importance for this young, emerging group would come against long time division rival San Francisco.

In the late 90s, the ***** were the gold standard for the NFC West Division and it wasn’t until the Rams were able to beat them that they truly arrived on the scene as a genuine threat to win the division, let alone go to the playoffs.

The landscape within the division is a bit different now as the ***** sit with a 2-6 record going into Sunday. But make no mistake; San Francisco is as talented a team as there is in the division.

“Early in the (season) when they stumbled, they lost three games by two or three points,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “This league, there’s a fine line in this league. That’s a talented, good football team. We’re not going to be blinded by the fact that they’re 2-6. They’ve won two out of their last three, and they’re on the rise. So that’s what we’re up against.”

Despite the record, Jackson sees the same thing from San Francisco.

“Division rival, a defense that I highly respect,” Jackson said. “I think they go about business the right way. It’s one of those measuring sticks for us to see where we’re at in our conference and our division. It’s going to be a meaningful game and I know guys, a lot of people who look at it from a point of view of records don’t really appreciate the intensity that this game is going to bring Sunday.”

Indeed, the ***** record is far from indicative of what they have been able to do. Statistically, there aren’t any areas that can be construed as true weaknesses.

Much has been made of the Rams so called struggles on the road. But the reality of the situation might have less to do with where it’s happening and everything to do with what is happening.

In their four wins, the Rams have been able to do two things consistently that they have yet to do in their losses: win the turnover battle and play well in the second half. Those two things haven’t been exclusive just to the road but it’s magnified by the fact that the Rams have yet to win away from home.

“I think we need to just be ourselves,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I don’t think we have to try to do anything different, I don’t think we have to try to force anything. I think we just have to come out and be ourselves, and we’ve got to do it for a whole game. I think that’s been the problem. We came out against Tampa and played great the first half and then just shut down in the second half. If you want to win a football game in this league, you can’t do that.”

San Francisco boasts one of the most physically imposing defenses in the league, led by linebacker Patrick Willis. That unit has been stout against the run and solid against the pass.

As always, there’s little doubt the Niners will do everything possible to slow Jackson and force Bradford to beat them.

“When you watch them on defense you don’t see a 2-6 team,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “They’re very talented. When they’re in their base defense they’ve got five big guys standing right on the line of scrimmage, so they’re a big challenge to run against. And then in nickel, I feel like they do a good job of pressuring the quarterback. So they’re a very good defense and this is going to be a tough challenge for us.”

Offensively, the Niners present another tough challenge, led by dynamic back Frank Gore and explosive tight end Vernon Davis.

All indications point to the elusive Troy Smith starting at quarterback. Against Carolina two weeks ago, the Rams finally got the turnover bug to return, coming up with four takeaways and giving away none of their own.

San Francisco has tossed 10 interceptions and coughed up six fumbles this year, meaning there could be some more opportunities for the Rams to take advantage of on Sunday.

“It’s certainly always our focus, is to try to get the ball back for the offense, and we don’t do anything different the week of the practice when we’re on the road or do anything on game day,” defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. “It just seems like we’ve had a little bit more luck at home than we have on the road, so we’re going to see if we can get that changed.”

More than anything, the Rams know they must perform better in the second half, an issue that has plagued them at home and on the road. Against Oakland and Tampa Bay, the Rams held halftime leads but were unable to increase them as the offense has stalled and the defense has been fatigued by being on the field for long stretches.

“I think really, to be honest with you it’s more or less just finding a way to come out in the second half to win these games,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “How do we play better second half football? We have to find a way to close those tight ones out. It’s not anything to overanalyze. It’s just finding a way to get one more point than they do.”

If the Rams can find a way to do that, it could turn a big game into a big win.