Cunningham making most of carries

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It took the St. Louis Rams four weeks worth of regular-season games to land on Zac Stacy as the starting running back. It’s taken a bit longer to find his understudy.

Stacy has taken that job and made it his own in the six games since, but the Rams have had a bit more trouble finding the right complement. If the Nov. 10 game against Indianapolis is any indication, the Rams might have found their man in the form of rookie Benny Cunningham.

Cunningham had seven carries for 72 yards and another catch for 18 yards against the Colts, a performance that actually led the Rams in rushing and likely earned him another chance to serve as Stacy’s primary backup.

“It boosts my confidence a lot,” Cunningham said. “Not that I lose confidence in myself but I just feel like the people around me know what I’m capable of and that comes from proving it in games. They may see it in practice but when you go out and do it in games, the team kind of sees what you are capable of and they kind of push behind you. I am trying to get that going and let them know that I can help.”

A look at the respective height and weight of Cunningham and Stacy would seem to indicate that the duo is cut from the same cloth in terms of running style. Cunningham is listed at 5-foot-10, 217 pounds to Stacy’s 5-8, 216 pounds, and both look the part of a between-the-tackles, grind-it-out style back.

“(Benny is) kind of a big, physical guy that’s good at making one-cut decisions and accelerating through the hole,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “(He’s a) very, very good change-of-pace guy in terms of their similar styles, but you take one guy out, you put him in there, and another battering ram lines up against them, so a very good complement I think.”

In an ideal world, Stacy’s power could combine with the speed of someone like Daryl Richardson, but Richardson has battled a toe injury all season and might not get back to full speed anytime soon. Isaiah Pead has been relegated to special teams, where he joins Chase Reynolds as a key contributor. That leaves the duties to Cunningham, who despite carrying a similar frame to Stacy, actually brings a little something different to the table. Stacy himself recognizes the difference between he and Cunningham.

“Benny is a flashy back,” Stacy said. “I think he’s actually a little faster than me, a little more wiggle to him and whatnot. Having him thrown in there as a little change of pace was good. I feel like in this league you can’t really have just one back, you always have to have a back to complement each other in terms of changing the pace of the game.”

An undrafted rookie free agent out of Middle Tennessee State, Cunningham came to the Rams with a reputation for all the things Stacy pointed out. After he was slowed by injury early in the season and training camp, Cunningham earned the kick returner job and started working into the running back mix in week 2 against Atlanta.

Cunningham showed flashes of potential here and there, but his best relief work came against Dallas in Week 3, when he rushed four times for 16 yards. After consistently getting a handful of carries in the games that followed, Cunningham suffered an ankle injury that kept him out against Carolina and Seattle.

Upon his return, the Rams had hoped to use Cunningham to spell for Stacy against Tennessee. Early in that game, Cunningham simply dropped the ball on a carry where he burst into the secondary untouched. It was a costly fumble that kept the Rams from scoring early.

Although Cunningham had a wrap on his thumb that made it harder to grip the ball, it was a tough pill to swallow. To his credit, he bounced back with the aforementioned performance against the Colts.

“I tried to put that right behind me, next play, next snap of the Tennessee game,” Cunningham said. “It’s not something I can dwell on or something that messes up my confidence, because I know what I’m capable of. It pretty much just motivated me to take care of the ball. The Indy game definitely helped me with that.”

Heading into the final six games, there’s no reason to think anyone but Cunningham will get the call when Stacy comes out of the game. That’s not to say that Stacy’s workload is going to decrease. By all accounts, Stacy is ready to carry the majority of the load.

But Cunningham has a chance to not only nail down the role for the rest of this season, but also make a case that the Rams don’t need to go looking for more help at the position in the offseason.

“With every practice, every rep, I go out and try to prepare myself like I’m going to be a starter, not even necessarily a complement,” Cunningham said. “I just try to prepare myself like if I was going to start the game.”