HOUSTON – It was only 18 days ago that the St. Louis Rams were coming off two blowout losses and searching for anything that could remotely be defined as a team identity.
The minimum expectation for any team under the tutelage of coach Jeff Fisher is an innate toughness, the ability to deal with problems head on. Such toughness -- which seemed to build over the course of the 2012 season -- appeared to have vanished after the Sept. 26 drubbing at the hands of San Francisco.
A win against Jacksonville the following week showed that the Rams could do what they needed to against an inferior opponent. But a team personality that the Rams could lean on when times were tough still had not bubbled to the surface.
They aren’t there yet, the personality is still in the developmental stages, but for the first time in the 2013 season, the Rams gave a glimpse of what they hope the finished product will become with a resounding 38-13 win against the Houston Texans on Sunday.
Now sitting at 3-3, the Rams seem to have dug themselves out of their early-season hole, and all things remain possible.
“It was important to us to speak life into our team, after the Thursday game [against the 49ers],” Fisher said. “I think we did that. We sent them off and gave them a little break and brought them back and just started over.”
On Sunday, the Rams showed plenty of signs that their toughness was back, that they could stand toe-to-toe with a physical team such as Houston and not back down. It served them well in 2012 against division foes Seattle and San Francisco, and it did again against the Texans.
Whether it was hard-nosed rookie running back Zac Stacy pushing the pile and picking up yards after contact or quarterback Sam Bradford standing tall in the pocket to take a hard hit from Houston linebacker Brooks Reed as he delivered a strike to tight end Jared Cook for 34 yards to set up a touchdown, the Rams refused to let Houston pummel them.
There was no better example of the attitude the Rams are looking to engender than the reaction of guard Harvey Dahl when Texans linebacker Brian Cushing jumped on Bradford after he slid for a 4-yard gain in the second quarter. Dahl immediately popped up and got in Cushing’s face, with not-so-pure intentions clearly on his mind, before tackle Jake Long restrained him from acquiring offsetting penalties.
It was a small thing in a game of big plays, but when forming an identity, it can be the small things that count the most.
“That’s what I love about Harvey, that’s what I love about all those guys upfront,” Bradford said. “I know they’ve got my back. To see something like that happen, I think that’s a big step for this team, a big step for this offense, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud to play for those guys up front.”
That same mentality was evident in the other phases of the game as well.
On special teams, the penalties mostly evaporated and the unit found a way to score one of the rarer touchdowns in football: a fumble return while covering a kickoff. The play happened because safety Rodney McLeod hit returner Keshawn Martin with reckless abandon and linebacker Daren Bates – fresh off running over a would-be blocker – was simply looking for something else to hit.
The Rams' defense struggled to stop Houston running back Arian Foster from ripping off big chunks of yards, but they managed to find ways to keep the Texans out of the end zone and hold them to field goals. They also created three more takeaways after grabbing three last week.
“We knew the key to this game was holding them out of the end zone and finding ways to get turnovers,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We knew they were going to get yards. They are tough to defend. We just needed to find ways to keep them out of the end zone and get the ball back for our offense.”
The fact that the Rams are the league’s youngest team is not lost on anyone; they were last year as well. They don’t and won’t use it as an excuse for any failures, but after their successes they can point to it and realize there’s still plenty of growth to come.
After the loss to San Francisco, it was fair to wonder if the Rams’ season would be lost by the time they started to progress again. Fisher told his team that it was starting fresh, that the first four games of the season were nothing more than an extended preseason.
The message was received loud and clear, and now, though the team’s identity is still far from formed, that personality is starting to peek from behind the curtain.
“I believe if you want a head coach in a fistfight, I’ve got Jeff Fisher,” defensive end Chris Long said. “Even in a really tough time, and the last couple weeks have been really tough trying to find an identity as a team to try to fall back on like we thought we were building last year, having him as our head coach and knowing the guys that he’s brought in, the right type of people to help you dig out of this hole and to get to .500, the sky is the limit for us. It’s one game. Now, we’ve got to duplicate this next week.”