Published October 18, 2012
ST. LOUIS – Minus a defensive coordinator since Gregg Williams was banished in January for his role in the Saints bounty scandal, the St. Louis Rams still have themselves a pretty tough unit.
Last week, the Dolphins managed 19 yards rushing even though they beat the Rams. The previous week, the Rams held the Cardinals to three points in a win.
Well done, Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Cortland Finnegan and Co.
Quinn is among the league leaders with six sacks and the other defensive end, Long, has been better overall. Finnegan, a cornerback, had an interception in his first three games and shut down the Dolphins' Brian Hartline.
This, from a unit that was one of the NFL's worst last year, especially early. The Eagles put up 31 points, the Ravens scored 37 with 553 total yards and the Packers rode a 21-point second quarter to a 24-3 victory in Green Bay that dropped St. Louis to 0-5.
"Well, I'm pleased with where we are," said coach Jeff Fisher, one of three former defensive coordinators on the staff and the brains behind the operation.
Then, there's the qualifier.
"But we have a lot of work to do and we have, clearly over the next two weekends, we have significant challenges," Fisher said. "So, ask me that question again after the next three games."
After the Green Bay Packers (3-3) leave town Sunday night, the Rams (3-3) head to London to get tested by Tom Brady and the Patriots. By then, there'll be a better idea just how much progress they've made.
First up: Can they contain Aaron Rodgers?
Sitting in the pocket, on the move, it doesn't seem to matter.
"He's one of the best quarterbacks I've seen rolling to his left and still throwing a rocket down the field," middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "He's one of those guys who can catch the ball out of the shotgun, not even have his hands on the laces and just zip it out before you can even count to two."
The Packers' offense shifted into high gear in last week's 42-24 victory at previously undefeated Houston. Rodgers matched Matt Flynn's franchise record with six touchdown passes and became the first in club history to throw six TD passes without an interception.
Rodgers is the first player in NFL history with six TD passes against an unbeaten team with at least five wins, and one of just three players to complete 60 percent of his passes for at least 330 yards and six TDs without a pick.
Seemingly, an injury to Greg Jennings has had no effect. Rodgers had the no-huddle offense humming and threw three TD passes to Jordy Nelson, two to James Jones and another to Tom Crabtree.
"I thought Aaron was exceptional," coach Mike McCarthy said. "It was frankly, the biggest commitment we've made to it."
Both realize it's not a finished, high-octane, product yet. That it's just one game.
"I'd like to think we're going to turn the corner," Rodgers said. "We have to be able to stack successes and carry some of the momentum we had in Houston against a team that's played very well at home, very well defensively at home.
"It's going to be a tough challenge for us."
Six games in, the Packers are a .500 team yet to win on consecutive weeks. Before blistering the Texans, they were upset by the Colts on the road, outgunned the Saints by a point at home and scored just 12 points in a controversial loss at Seattle that may have been the final straw in the replacement referee saga.
Rodgers realizes it'll be difficult to measure up to last week's performance.
"It's probably not going to happen. To throw six touchdowns, a lot of stuff has to come together," he said. "You have to kind of stall at times on your runs inside the red zone, that adds to it. You have to make the most of some opportunities, you have to have some guys break some tackles and have guys make some great catches. You have to have the line protecting well enough to get off six passes."
The Rams are allowing 18.5 points per game, fifth best in the NFL. At home they're 3-0 and have been even stingier, surrendering a 14-point average.
"That feels good to be there, but we have a long way to go," Long said. "Truly, we have a long way as far as games remaining and we have a long way as far as things we have to prove to ourselves, yet.
"Certainly, we'd like to push those numbers down further and help our team win."
Adding Finnegan in free agency has allowed the Rams to make quick progress on defense. Finnegan has made an impression on the other cornerback, rookie Janoris Jenkins, who has been very impressive most of the year with a few occasions when he's been burned badly after guessing wrong.
The feisty Finnegan is in the same defense Fisher ran in Tennessee, so there's been no break-in period required, and is equally effective outside and inside. The Rams' ability to cover effectively has helped every other aspect.
"Kind of a dying breed in our league, a guy who can be very effective in both positions," Rodgers said. "You can probably count on one hand the number of guys who do it really well, and he's one of them."
The line is loaded with first-round picks including tackle Michael Brockers, their first-rounder this April who's made strides since recovering from a high ankle sprain in preseason. Overall, they've cut their opponents' rushing total from 152 yards to 101.
The Packers anticipate the going to be tough.
"They've played a little bit quicker at home, which is natural because you're going to get that extra kind of half-step from the crowd noise," Rodgers said. "But they've got a good pedigree to have a good defense. They've got the right guys in the right places."
The Rams have improved on offense, too, at least statistically, although they've relied too heavily on the strong leg of rookie Greg Zuerlein, who hit his first 15 field goal attempts including a franchise-record 60-yarder before missing his last three in Miami. Fisher told Zuerlein the last miss was on the coach, given it was an NFL-record attempt from 66 yards on the final play to force overtime, and expects the kid to bounce back strong.
St. Louis totaled a season high 462 yards last week, including 315 passing from Sam Bradford, but scored just 14 points. This week, Bradford will be facing a secondary that could include cornerback Davon House, on track to make his season debut coming off a shoulder injury in the preseason.
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