BY JIM THOMAS Thursday, November 11, 2010 12:00 am

No single number says more about the Rams' improved defensive play this season than their current No. 8 league ranking in run defense. It has been nearly a decade since the defense has been that stingy against the run.

The Rams haven't finished higher than 20th in run defense since the 2002 squad finished the season 14th. And they haven't finished in the top 10 in run defense since the 2001 NFC championship squad finished third. (The 1999 Super Bowl championship team led the league in run defense.)

Through eight games this season, the Rams have allowed only one 100-yard rusher Oakland's Darren McFadden, who had 145 yards on 30 carries in Game 2. Last year, the Rams allowed six 100-yard rushers, and two other opposing ball carriers finished in the 90s.

But as coach Steve Spagnuolo points out, a statistic never made a tackle. The Rams' players are going to have to do that, and do it against one of the best in the business Sunday in San Francisco running back Frank Gore.

"It just goes back to basic run-game defense," Spagnuolo said. "Stay in your gap or win your gap and tackle the ball carrier. That's about what it comes down to. ... But our guys take a lot of pride in it, and they know we've got a good challenge with Frank Gore and this particular offense."

Although Gore has missed a few games over the years because of injuries, most of the Rams' veterans have played him several times and know what to expect. Gore is a patient runner, a physical runner who breaks tackles and does his best work between the tackles.

"When you hit him, you feel him," defensive end James Hall said. "He's a one-cut guy, and he's downhill. He can hurt you. I've got a lot of respect for the guy playing him over the years."

Gore certainly has had his moments against the Rams. The last time the NFC West rivals met, in the 2009 season finale, he rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-6 San Francisco victory. He has had four 100-yard rushing games against the Rams and has scored four TDs in his past two outings against them.

"I've always thought that he was one of the more underrated running backs," said linebacker Larry Grant, who spent half of the 2008 season on the *****' practice squad. "Coach (Mike) Singletary feels like Frank is his Walter Payton. And that's how he uses Frank. And if you ask me, I think he has all the ability of being a guy like that in the future."

Since Mike Johnson replaced the deposed Jimmy Raye as offensive coordinator in late September, there has been a little bit more variety in the *****' offense. The ***** are stubborn about running the football, and it's still all about Frank Gore. No running back by committee here.

Gore rarely leaves the field and, except for a two-fumble outing against Philadelphia, has been as productive as ever this season. He is the *****' best runner, best pass-catcher and best blocker when it comes to blitz pickup.

He enters Sunday's Rams-***** game with three consecutive 100-yard rushing contests and is one of three players in the NFL with 1,000 yards from scrimmage. (Gore has 691 yards rushing and 348 yards receiving.)

"He's a big, huge part of their offense," Hall said. "We know that going into the game, and we understand what he means to them as far as the outcome of the game. We're definitely going to do our best to stop him."

Brit Miller, who joined the Rams as a backup fullback and special-teams player a month ago, spent the '09 season with San Francisco and was in training camp with the ***** this summer. So, he has seen Gore up close, participating in position drills with him.

Miller says that if Gore doesn't like how a play is run during practice, he'll have the ***** run it again. "He's a guy that wants to win and comes out and prepares like it," Miller said. "Frank's expectations in the game are high. He wants the ball. He wants 100 yards-plus. He wants to score on every play."

Which sounds a lot like Rams counterpart Steven Jackson, and that's not the only similarity between the two Pro Bowlers.

Since the start of the 2006 season, Gore has 7,692 yards from scrimmage, the most in the NFL. No. 2 on that list, and a close second at that, is Jackson with 7,611 yards. Jackson actually leads the league in yards from scrimmage per game over that span at 120.8 because he has missed a few more games with injuries than Gore.

And only Gore, Jackson, and Thomas Jones (the former New York Jet now with Kansas City) have rushed for 1,000 yards-plus in each of the past four seasons.

"Two of the best," Grant said. "We have the luxury here of playing with 'Jack.' I'm glad we don't have to play against him on Sunday. But going against Frank, you've got to buckle your chin strap."

Over their final eight games, the Rams face Gore and the ***** twice, take on Michael Turner and Atlanta's potent running game Nov. 21, and face Kansas City's top-ranked rushing offense Dec. 19.

If the Rams are still ranked eighth in run defense after running that gantlet, well, they may find themselves playing postseason football for the first time since 2004.