NFC West: 2013 Week 12 CHI at STL

Resilient Rams refuse to go down easy

November, 24, 2013
ST. LOUIS – After scoring 21 points in the first quarter for the first time since the middle of the 2008 season, the St. Louis Rams looked poised to run away from an opponent for the second game in a row. The Rams dominated the Chicago Bears for the better part of the opening 30 minutes, but just before going into the locker room at the half, a chain of unfortunate events began.

Left guard Chris Williams left the game with a head injury. Running back Zac Stacy soon exited with a similar injury. And at the start of the third quarter, cornerback Trumaine Johnson followed suit. Three of the team’s key starters were out.

[+] EnlargeRobert Quinn
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesThe Rams pulled away with two late touchdowns, including one on a fumble return by Robert Quinn.
Then, with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Rams took their biggest hit by delivering one. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers was flagged for roughing Bears quarterback Josh McCown on a sack that appeared to be so fundamentally sound you could almost hear the applause from Tim Duncan in San Antonio.

Instead of a drive-killing stop, the Bears got new life and scored to get to within six points, at 27-21.

“They just kept playing,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

For those who have seen the Rams of recent vintage, at least pre-Fisher, "just keep playing" would have equated to something like packing up their briefcases and calling it a day.

What this edition of the Rams did was respond with resilience and gumption, a trend that continues to pop up in tiny spurts.

“Seven points, that’s the only thing we were thinking about,” guard Rodger Saffold said. “That’s what we were saying on the sidelines. I can’t lie. Emotions got into it. I was extremely angry, and then the only way to overcome that is to work.”

The Rams' offense immediately put together a seven-play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown, with Stacy’s backup, Benny Cunningham, doing most of the damage. One minute later, Rams defensive end Robert Quinn forced a fumble, recovered it and raced 31 yards for a touchdown and the final margin.

With the game teetering in the balance, the Rams didn’t flinch. They offered an angry stare and pushed the Bears over the edge.

“This team, we are a bunch of fighters,” Saffold said. “We’re a bunch of dogs caged, so when you cut us loose, you see what we can do.”

Sunday’s win gave the Rams a two-game win streak, but how they achieved it might speak to something bigger. The Rams are 5-6 and still sitting on the outskirts of any realistic playoff discussion. But consecutive convincing wins against teams that are firmly in said postseason picture indicate the Rams just might be a team nobody wants to see down the stretch.

Prosperity has been fleeting for the Rams for most of the past decade. What little they’ve had has soon been frittered away and has often spiraled into further despair.

Over the course of the first 11 weeks this season, the Rams have clearly matured to the point where they can not only embrace prosperity but create it in the face of adversity.

“I think that we are starting to believe, which is what you need,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “As a whole, we are starting to believe. Coming off a big win at Indianapolis, I was proud of the guys, there’s no letdown. We didn’t come out flat coming off a bye week, a lot of times that happens.”

Even when in-game letdowns seemed plausible, the Rams found a way to get out of it. Witness the goal-line stop by linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar on the first drive of the third quarter. Or the defense managing to keep the Bears out of the end zone on three plays from the Rams’ 1-yard line before they finally scored following Brockers’ penalty.

A game the Rams had in control nearly slipped away on multiple occasions, yet they discovered ways to hang on.

“We have got a bunch of tough dudes in this locker room,” end Chris Long said. “We knew that. Everybody else is starting to figure that out.”

That may not be the sign of a team ready to make a run at the postseason. But it might be one that signals it’s going to take a mighty blow to knock them out.

Cunningham more than just a complement

November, 24, 2013
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.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Benny Cunningham
Scott Kane/USA TODAY SportsUndrafted 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."

The operative word to note is answers. Plural.

Three things revisited: Rams-Bears

November, 24, 2013
St. Louis -- A look at how the St. Louis Rams fared in three key areas of Sunday's 42-21 win against the Chicago Bears.

Attack with Zac

It was a no brainer to assume the Rams would look to establish the running game against Chicago's 31st-ranked rush defense, especially given the Rams and running back Zac Stacy's recent success running the ball.

Sure enough, that's precisely what the Rams did as Stacy got the ball early and often. He pounded away at the Bears for 87 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries before leaving the game with a head injury. The Rams turned the reins over to fellow rookie Benny Cunningham who had even more success in rushing 13 times for 109 yards and a touchdown of his own.

Electric rookie Tavon Austin added to the mix with his scintillating 65-yard touchdown jaunt on the game's third play as the Rams finished with 258 yards on 29 carries for three scores.

Protecting it

Turnovers are a key to every game but the Rams set the tone early by forcing a fumble from Chicago running back Matt Forte on the Bears' first play from scrimmage. Linebacker James Laurinaitis recovered it at Chicago's 7 and the Rams promptly went up 14-0.

Both teams stayed turnover free despite some close calls until the game's closing moments when the Rams sealed it with takeaways. End Robert Quinn forced a fumble, recovered it and ran 31 yards for a touchdown for the final margin and safety/cornerback Rodney McLeod intercepted Bears quarterback Josh McCown with a minute and 32 seconds to play.

All told, the Rams were plus-three in the turnover battle.

Screen protection

Early in the game, the Rams seemed to be prepared for any attempts to throw screens to Forte or any other Bears back but Forte eventually found some room. He finished with 40 receiving yards on seven catches and Michael Bush added a catch for 10 yards as the Rams struggled with open field tackling.

Still, the Rams found a way to limit the damage on those plays as none of the backs had a gain longer than Forte's 13 yards on a catch.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

November, 24, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 42-21 win against the Chicago Bears.

What it means: Left out of the playoff conversations that have begun in earnest, the Rams sent a reminder to the rest of the NFC that they aren't going to be an easy out for anyone. A dominant run game that piled up 258 yards helped the Rams score 28 points or more in consecutive games for the first time since 2000. The win is the Rams' second in a row and again came at the expense of a team with a winning record. Now 5-6, the Rams still have almost no margin for error in their final five games, but they can at least stake claim to having a better shot at the playoffs than they did before this game.

Stock watch -- up: Running back Benny Cunningham. When starting running back Zac Stacy went out because of a head injury, the undrafted rookie from Middle Tennessee State stepped in and didn't missed a beat. Cunningham posted his first career 100-yard game and scored his first career touchdown to help put the game away late. All told, Cunningham had 13 carries for 109 yards with the score.

Stock watch -- down: Cornerback Brandon McGee. It's unfair because this was McGee's first extended chance to play on defense, but he was simply overmatched by Chicago's bigger receivers. McGee picked up pass-interference and holding penalties to set up a late touchdown for the Bears and had trouble in coverage otherwise. He'll improve from the experience, but his struggles helped Chicago stay in the game.

Fighting through injuries: The Rams were able to hang on to the lead despite losing three key starters to head injuries. Stacy, left guard Chris Williams and cornerback Trumaine Johnson left to be evaluated for concussions. After originally having their returns listed as questionable, they were downgraded to out in the third quarter. The loss of Stacy was particularly costly as he was shredding the Bears' defense to the tune of 12 carries for 87 yards. Cunningham replaced Stacy, Shelley Smith stepped in for Williams and McGee filled in for Johnson.

What's next: The Rams begin a two-game West Coast swing against San Francisco and Arizona, the two teams directly ahead of them in the NFC West standings, before returning to St. Louis for two more at home before Christmas.