By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
"Whatever comes out of these gates, do you understand if we stay together, we survive? Come together. Stay close. Lock your shields. And stay as one." - Maximus Decimus Meridius (actor Russell Crowe), in the movie "Gladiator."
On Saturday morning, during the regular team meeting at Rams Park, interim head coach Joe Vitt played that film clip to Rams players.
"We were kind of like, 'Let's go! Let's play right now,'" safety Mike Furrey said.
The playing would have to wait another day. Call it hokey if you will, but Vitt's motivational ploy worked. The Rams carried that "Gladiator" mentality into Sunday's game with Jacksonville.
What came out of the gates for the Jaguars were:
A pair of goliaths at defensive tackle in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.
That warrior at quarterback in Byron Leftwich.
That monster of a running back in Fred Taylor.
And perhaps the tallest receiving corps known to man.
But the Rams found a way to win 24-21, despite the absence of four Pro Bowlers for the second week in a row, and minus two other starters scratched by injury. They played without ailing head coach Mike Martz for the second week in a row and stayed focused despite the Martz-front office feud bursting wide open.
"We could be on all the local stations at noon for a soap opera," Furrey said. "You could call it: 'Rams Park.' There's been a lot of adversity throughout our organization, and players being down, and Coach Martz being sick."
The Rams played through it. No Martz (endocarditis). No Marc Bulger (shoulder injury). No Torry Holt (knee). No Isaac Bruce (turf toe). No Leonard Little (death of his brother). No Travis Fisher (groin). No Claude Terrell (neck).
The Rams got a 29-yard return for a touchdown by Brandon Chillar of a punt blocked by Drew Wahlroos.
They added an 83-yard TD catch by Kevin Curtis from quarterback Jamie Martin.
Jeff Wilkins tacked on a 41-yard field goal to end the first half. And then Steven Jackson scored the game-winning TD, on a 19-yard screen pass with 12 minutes 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
It was just enough to hold off the Jaguars (4-3), who reached the St. Louis 45-yard line in the final minute and a half before stalling out.
"This was a great win for our football team," Vitt said. "The emotion that the guys played with, and the passion, and the character, is just unbelievable. Every player and every coach on our staff got a game ball. What else can you say?"
So despite missing six starters, the Rams have righted the ship at 4-4 entering the bye week. Who knows what will happen over the second half of the season, but at least the Rams have given themselves a chance.
"It kind of tells you the character of the team," Curtis said. "Just how close we are. When stuff like that happens, you can go two ways. It can distract you and pull you apart, or you (can) stick together. The coaches have done a good job of trying to not let us worry about what else is going on. But just stay close to the family."
Wahlroos' blocked punt just over 2 minutes into the game jump-started the Rams. Wahlroos came clean up the middle on the play, bearing down on Jaguars punter Chris Hanson. How clean?
"For a split-second, I thought maybe I should just tackle him before he kicked it," Wahlroos said.
Wahlroos hit Hanson's foot just a nano-second after the football did, with Chillar scooping up the blocked kick for his first NFL touchdown. But just 23 seconds later, Taylor scored on a 71-yard TD, letting the Rams know that they were in for a game.
By the end of the first quarter, Taylor already had 114 yards rushing on just eight carries. But the Rams' run defense tightened up on Taylor the rest of the way, limiting him to 51 yards on 14 carries over the final three quarters. It didn't seem possible in the first half, but by game's end, Jackson had outrushed Taylor.
Jackson finished with a career-high 179 yards on 25 carries, logging the best performance by a Rams rusher since Marshall Faulk put 183 yards on Seattle in 2002.
"I think he's one of those special backs, the more you feed him the ball the stronger he gets, the more confidence he gets," Vitt said. "In that fourth quarter he was wearing people down."
As was the case last week against New Orleans, the Rams used a conservative approach on offense because of all their missing players.
"It helps, just the mixing it up," offensive guard Adam Timmerman said. "It's nice when we're pushing them back and running the ball."
On Sunday, the Rams did more than mix the run with the pass. They actually had more running plays (33) than pass plays (23), something that hasn't happened since a 20-7 victory over Philadelphia last Dec. 27.
Despite all the success on the ground, the Rams still needed some late-game magic from Furrey - once again - to seal the victory. Against the Saints, he returned an interception 67 yards for a TD in a 28-17 Rams triumph.
Against Jacksonville, he intercepted a pass that was bobbled by Ernest Wilford and returned it 37 yards on the opening play of the fourth quarter. That led to Jackson's game-winning TD.
"I think everybody counted us out the last two weeks, especially with Torry not playing, and everybody being hurt, and the incident with Leonard," Furrey said. "It's been tough."
Tough, but not impossible, once the Rams locked shields.