Sunday, November 24, 2013
Cunningham more than just a complement
By Nick Wagoner
ST. LOUIS -- For the better part of the 2013 offseason, the St. Louis Rams' key decision makers repeated the mantra that the job of replacing running back Steven Jackson would fall into more than one pair of hands.
In a league that has slowly but surely seen the idea of the workhorse back fall by the wayside, it seemed certain the Rams would be next in line to employ a committee instead of a bell cow.
That approach appeared to change with the emergence of rookie Zac Stacy, who took over as the starter in Week 5 against Jacksonville. Since then, the Rams have been searching for at least a complement if not a full-fledged tag team partner.
Sunday's 42-21 win forced the Rams to speed up the search after Stacy left with a head injury just before the end of the first half. Stacy had been shredding the Bears' shoddy run defense almost at will and the Rams' ability to continue pounding the ball on the ground was suddenly up in the air.
Undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham rushed for 109 yards on 13 carries against the Bears.
Enter Benny Cunningham. Before Stacy's injury, the Rams had rushed for 163 yards on 15 carries, including Tavon Austin's 65-yard touchdown run. Continuing that type of production with Cunningham as the primary runner was a lofty request. He wasn't able to continue it. Instead, he actually improved it.
"He's a great back," quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "He really is. He's a great back and he works hard. I was excited to see him get an opportunity and then make the most of it."
By the time the undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee State was done making the most of the Bears 31st-ranked run defense, he had 109 yards on 13 carries and a 9-yard touchdown run that all but sealed the win.
Although Cunningham is only 11 games into his rookie season, the road to this moment has been brewing longer. Cunningham went undrafted in April because of a knee injury that cost him a chunk of his final season at Middle Tennessee.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher knew of Cunningham from their mutual Nashville ties and personally called the 5-foot-10, 209 pound back after the draft to recruit him to St. Louis. Aside from the most die-hard draftniks, Cunningham was a name that wasn't on most people's radar.
Soon after his arrival, Cunningham attacked his rehabilitation and didn't get on the field until training camp. He impressed in the preseason and began biding his time for an opportunity.
"(You are) kind of watching and you always want to get the opportunity," Cunningham said. "I just felt like if I kept preparing myself like a starter, I wouldn't have to get ready because I would already be ready."
Cunningham had a few stops and starts this season; most notably a stop caused by an ankle injury, but got his first extended chance to work in tandem with Stacy against Indianapolis on Oct. 10.
In that game, Cunningham made the most of his limited work, rushing seven times for a team-leading 72 yards. The performance earned Cunningham another look as Stacy's understudy Sunday against the Bears.
After watching the Rams offensive line punish Chicago for most of the first half, Cunningham knew he'd have a chance to do what Stacy was doing when his teammate left for a concussion evaluation.
"I just knew if I protect the ball, the holes will be there, they'll open up and just do what I have been doing all week in practice ... and just take advantage of the opportunity," Cunningham said.
Immediately after his own breakthrough performance, Cunningham quickly and repeatedly gave credit to his offensive line and other blockers for opening sizable holes.
It's worth noting all of the Rams running backs had a much easier job than normal because of the Peterbilt-sized holes they had to run through. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Rams had 213 rushing yards before contact against the Bears, the most by any team in a game this year.
Still, there's something to be said for a rookie running back, who before today had a whopping 27 carries to his NFL name, taking over and doing what was needed to help his team sew up a win.
"I'm extremely proud of him," Saffold said. "He works as if he's going to play every week. All of our backs do. You can't ask for a better group of guys. I think there was a lot of questions when Jack left and I think we are starting to see the answers."