EARTH CITY, Mo. – As he fired up his team-issued iPad earlier this week to take a look at film of the 49ers, St. Louis Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis came upon the tape of his team’s embarrassing loss to San Francisco on Sept. 26.
With a hint of reluctance, Laurinaitis watched the game. He often cringed at what he saw -- a Rams team, four games into the season, without an identity and riding the biggest boulder straight to rock bottom.
It’s a team that seven games and eight weeks later Laurinaitis doesn’t even recognize, especially after he held it up to the standard set in two stirring performances against the NFC champion Niners in 2012.
“It was just a wake-up call,” Laurinaitis said. “You watch the tape from the squad we had last year, the two games [against San Francisco], and you’re like, ‘Yeah, we fought toe-to-toe in some battles with them.’ Then you look at the tape of the first game with them this year, and then the last few weeks, and you don’t even know who that team is really.”
That same Niners team that dominated so many opponents in 2012 but couldn't solve the Rams had waltzed into St. Louis a year later and trounced the Rams. The 35-11 loss was the culmination of a two-week period in which the Rams lost to Dallas and San Francisco by a combined 48 points. St. Louis fell to 1-3 and appeared to have regressed from any gains they’d made in 2012.
Soon after that game, Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear that changes would be in the offing. The identity of Fisher teams for most of his coaching career could be described as "physical" and "aggressive." The early impression of his 2013 Rams was of a team easy to push around and incapable of slugging it out.
So it was that the Rams then set about getting back to the smashmouth basics of vintage Fisher.
The first priority? Running the football.
Through the first four weeks, the Rams were last in the league in rushing, averaging just 47.3 yards per game, a pace that would have placed the Rams among the worst rushing teams in franchise history. They were managing just 2.6 yards per carry, worse than all but one other team in the league.
As part of the return to running the ball, the Rams installed rookie Zac Stacy as the starting back and began morphing an offense that had tried to be a more spread out, pass-heavy attack into the sort of power-rushing unit that has long been a hallmark of Fisher's and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's teams.
It didn’t take long for the offensive line to adjust to the scheme, and the Rams coached up their tight ends and receivers on how to be more effective blockers. The results have only gotten better by the week as Stacy has been a revelation and fellow rookie Benny Cunningham has recently emerged as a solid tag-team partner.
Since that first meeting against the 49ers, the Rams are second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (151.9) and second in yards per carry (4.9).
“We focused in on it and we stuck with it and we emphasized it, and it’s allowed us to be successful here as of late,” Fisher said. “That’s a credit to the whole group.”
The improved run game has had a positive effect on the entire offense, as the Rams went from 24th in the league in points scored during the first four weeks to third over the past seven, and improved their total yards per game from 301.8 to 337.7.
A more aggressive approach wasn’t limited to the offense, either. After playing plenty of softer coverage schemes and struggling mightily to stop the run in the first four games, the Rams began playing more aggressively in all areas of defense.
“There’s been a lot of growth defensively,” Laurinaitis said. “I think early in the year we were kind of passive-aggressive, and now our defense is just more attacking and aggressive and not worried about being perfect all the time.”
Much like with the offense, the defense desperately needed improvement in the run game after the Niners and Cowboys ran almost at will on them. Through the first four games, the Rams were 30th in the league in run defense, allowing 133.5 yards per game, and 26th in allowing 4.6 yards per carry.
Week after week it seemed the questions centered on what, exactly, was wrong with the run defense. While it hasn’t totally been corrected – see the Tennessee and Houston games – there’s no doubt the Rams have made substantial improvements in stopping the run. In the past seven games, the Rams have given up 98.7 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry, good for eighth in both categories.
Improvement against the run (and playing with a lead) has also led to more opportunities to rush the passer. After posting nine sacks (20th in the NFL) in the first four games, the Rams have 24 in the past seven (tied for fifth in that span).
Laurinaitis now sees a defense unwilling to relent, a far cry from a group he believed brought the necessary energy for only 30 minutes in the first meeting against the Niners.
“That just can’t happen,” Laurinaitis said. “You just never know in a football game. You keep fighting, you don’t concede anything. You have to keep that energy and that fight up for 60 minutes.”
Despite all of those strides made by a team that finally has taken shape and figured out what it wants to be, the Rams have managed just a 4-3 record in the past seven games. More often than not, the losses have been the product of turnovers. St. Louis is still far from a finished product, or even a consistent one.
But still, the youngest team in the league has done what the Rams had hoped it would and made noticeable gains from week to week. And with a trip to San Francisco on Sunday to take on the team that made them take a long look in the mirror, the Rams have an opportunity to see just how far they've come.
“Right now the tape that they’re watching, I guarantee is the last game,” Laurinaitis said. “And they are thinking, ‘Is that this Rams team or is it a different team?’ I think we’re a different team, but the only way you get that respect is to go out and earn it and be tough on the road against a good football team.”