NFC West: St. Louis Rams

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Perhaps more so than most other rookies around the league, Greg Robinson's rookie season with the St. Louis Rams has been a never-ending crash course. As soon as he learns one thing, it's on to something else.

After taking the first month-plus of the season to earn his way into a starting job at left guard, Robinson was quickly moved to left tackle when Jake Long suffered a season-ending ACL injury Oct. 26 against Kansas City. Though Robinson is more at home on the edge, he's still going to have his share of bumps and bruises along the way.

[+] EnlargeGreg Robinson
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesGreg Robinson is learning on the job at left tackle against some of the NFL's top pass-rushers.
It doesn't make the adjustment any easier that Robinson is getting his crash course on things like understanding angles and how deep to get before setting in pass protection while going up against the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Tamba Hali and Justin Smith.

Last week's matchup against Ware, who dominated Long in last season's meeting with Dallas, was perhaps Robinson's toughest yet.

"He had quite a battle on his hands," coach Jeff Fisher said. "It wasn’t easy. I know this is going to be a great learning experience for him. I think he was a little disappointed today at some of the things that happened, but as long as he continues to learn from things and become a little bit more patient, he’ll just be fine.”

Certainly, Robinson had his share of hiccups along the way. He was responsible for allowing a sack to Ware that nearly turned into a disaster when Robinson didn't hear quarterback Shaun Hill check to a pass from a run before the snap. When the snap came, Ware ran right past a startled Robinson, who was clearly left stunned by what happened. The miscommunication led to a sack and a fumble, but Hill was able to get the ball back before Denver could pounce.

Beyond that, Robinson had some other issues and wasn't his usual, physical self in the run game.

The good news for all parties, though, is that Robinson is athletic and strong enough to offset some of his shortcomings in fundamentals and communication. Slowly but surely, those areas are coming along just fine.

"He’s getting a lot more comfortable," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "Obviously, you can teach a couple sets. He’s obviously a great athlete, but I think you watch him fundamentally and how square he’s starting to stay, using his hands. He had a tendency in the past to kind of want to clutch guys and grab them around the outside part of the shoulder pads instead of punching. It’s hard to control and counter a guy when he makes a move."

Like many things, though, the only way to truly learn is to go out and do it.

"The more repetition he does, the (better)," Schottenheimer said. "Again, he’s going against the best each week, normally, but I think he’s done a really good job of holding his own. We expect him to continue to get better. So much is a rhythm and timing with his feet and his punch, things like that. That’s hard to develop with drills. You’ve got to actually go out and do it."

T.J. McDonald carving his own path

November, 20, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The recent ascent of the St. Louis Rams' defense has been expected if not overdue. But it's no coincidence it has taken off in recent weeks at the same time some of its young cornerstones have begun coming into their own.

Perhaps none of those young players has made more strides over the past three weeks or so than safety T.J. McDonald.

Sometimes, that has meant putting up impressive numbers as he did two weeks ago against Arizona with nine tackles and a sack. Sometimes, it's more about the physical presence he provides, such as last week against Denver when he had five tackles and two pass breakups, but ensured that Denver pass-catchers would feel every bit of them.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsT.J. McDonald, a physical safety, has also shined in coverage over the past three games.
On a defense loaded with more familiar names like end Robert Quinn, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, it's McDonald's performance from the safety spot that has elevated the Rams' defense into one of the league's best over the past three weeks.

"It’s just been tremendous growth, especially this whole season and the past few weeks in particular," fellow safety Rodney McLeod said. "The guy is showing up in every phase, whether it’s special teams and on defense, tackling, pass-breakups. We’ve got to work on his hands a little bit, but other than that, the guy has been doing a great job for us. It’s just great to see him making plays back there at a time like this when we are trying to make a push for the playoffs and we need everybody to step up and make plays for us."

In many ways, McDonald's play has been what was expected when the Rams used a third-round choice on him in the 2013 NFL draft. McDonald quickly claimed a starting spot and earned praise for how fast he was able to pick up the system. A fracture in his leg limited him to 10 games as a rookie with mixed results.

But when the Rams hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in the offseason, many believed McDonald was a perfect safety for his system. At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, McDonald is the prototype of a Williams safety who can be a force near the line of scrimmage offering an additional hammer in the run game with emerging blitz skills. That McDonald wasn't known for his coverage abilities didn't figure to matter given Williams' propensity for playing with a lot of single-high safety looks, a look that would generally feature McLeod on the back end.

True to that idea, McDonald spent much of the early part of the season near the line of scrimmage, defending the run and bringing the blitz. Through the Rams' first eight games, McDonald had almost an identical split in snaps played in the run box (230) and snaps played on the back end (221).

What's interesting, though, is how much more McDonald has been asked to do in coverage over the past three weeks. Although that lines up with the arrival of Mark Barron via trade, Barron has only been heavily involved in one of those games.

According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, McDonald has played 144 of his 209 snaps over the past three weeks in coverage, which works out to about 69 percent. For what it's worth, McDonald has earned his highest grades in coverage from PFF over that same span.

"I feel like I am recognizing things faster and I am more comfortable in the defense," McDonald said. "I feel like I’m on my toes and playing downhill and having a lot of fun playing.

"I think just like any new defense, anything that’s new, you have got to understand what your job is, and that was the first thing. Everybody was trying to make sure they did their job. I felt like we got a good grip on what our coaches want from us. Then it becomes 'what is the offense going to do?' Then we put that stuff together and really focus on what is going on with them."

Against the Broncos, quarterback Peyton Manning targeted McDonald seven times and came away with three completions for just 6 yards with a long of 3 yards. Even on those rare completions, McDonald was quick to lower the boom and finished with a pair of pass-breakups.

It was the type of performance that left many making the seemingly endless and easy comparisons to his father, former six-time All Pro safety Tim McDonald. But as McDonald continues to string together solid performances, maybe it's time to start letting what he does on the field stand on its own.

"I have definitely walked in his shadow for a long time," McDonald said. "I can’t say I’ve been trying to stray away from that, but at the same time you want to be your own man and you definitely want to be known as, I want people to one day be able to say 'That’s T.J.’s dad' not 'I’m Tim’s son.' I have a long ways to go. I’m in no rush, I’m just trying to get better, have fun and play ball."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There's still a long way to go but for the four members of the Greatest Show on Turf Rams, the hope of going into the Hall of Fame together on the first ballot remains alive.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced 26 semifinalists for the 2015 induction class on Tuesday night (26 instead of 25 because of a tie) and the four most prominent remaining members of the 1999, early 2000s St. Louis Rams offense all made that cut. That includes quarterback Kurt Warner, left tackle Orlando Pace and wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.

[+] EnlargeTorry Holt and Isaac Bruce
Elsa/Getty ImagesTorry Holt and Isaac Bruce combined for 28,590 yards and 165 receiving TDs in their careers.
Another pair of former Rams, pass-rusher Kevin Greene and running back Jerome Bettis, also made the cut. Greene did plenty of damage as a Ram but Bettis is still more known for his work as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Greene and Bettis both made the cut to 15 a year ago but missed out on induction.

Regardless, the names that most Rams fans will be rooting for this election cycle are Warner, Pace, Bruce and Holt. All four are on the ballot for the first time and all have mentioned how much they'd love to go in as a quartet. The always-optimistic Bruce even believes there's a chance it could happen.

"That would mean we’d have to spend less money on the caravan bus," Bruce said. "We could just pack them all up and just go up together. Honestly, I don’t think I would be shocked. I played with that core of guys for five-plus, six years. That’s rare. That normally doesn’t happen because guys leave for free agency or other issues but I wouldn’t be surprised. I saw these guys' body of work. I saw these guys put in work. I saw these guys excel at their jobs and perfect their crafts every day, on a daily basis.

"The things they did and things they accomplished, I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys go in as first ballot Hall of Famers because that’s the path they were on. Just to see it happen, which I believe I will see it happen, it would be great. It would be an awesome time not only for myself but for my teammates, the city of St. Louis. It would be big, it would be huge in more ways than one."

It's generally believed that Warner and Pace have the best chance among the four new Rams on the ballot. That's nothing against the accomplishments of Bruce and Holt but more of a nod to the competition they face at the wide receiver position where the likes of Tim Brown and Marvin Harrison are also on the slate. But this might be a good year to get at least one of them in before even more receivers such as Randy Moss and Terrell Owens enter the fray.

Earlier this year, I offered a closer look at the candidacy of each of the four new Rams on the ballot. Here's the case for Bruce, Holt, Pace and Warner.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As a rookie, St. Louis Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein made a habit of winning awards for his powerful right leg. He took home a pair of Special Teams Player of the Week honors in Week 4 and Week 13 of the 2012 season.

Zuerlein
Zuerlein did it again Wednesday when he was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his work in the Rams' 22-7 win against the Denver Broncos last week. Zuerlein connected on all five of his field goal tries, including makes from 55 and 53 yards to help ice the game in the fourth quarter. He also made his only extra point attempt to finish with 16 points on the day, a new career high.

A big day from Zuerlein was a good sign after he had a couple of hiccups against the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago. In that game, Zuerlein mis-hit a kickoff that Knile Davis returned 99 yards for a touchdown and missed a 38-yard field goal attempt. At that point, Zuerlein had been making 77.2 percent of his field goals since a perfect 15-of-15 start in the first five weeks of 2012. He'd also made just five-of-14 tries from beyond 50 yards in that span.

But Zuerlein has been back on his game since that loss to the Chiefs. He's now converted seven field goals in a row, including a pair of key kicks that help beat San Francisco in Week 9.

For the season, Zuerlein is 15-of-18 on field goals and has made all 20 of his extra point attempts.

Rams need to find consistency

November, 19, 2014
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ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner says after the victory over the Broncos, St. Louis must win back-to-back to prove itself.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Of the many penalties the St. Louis Rams have racked up over the past three years, few have looked as silly as what cornerback Janoris Jenkins did against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

Jenkins
 Midway through the third quarter, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had just completed a pass to receiver Demaryius Thomas for a gain of three yards on the right side of the field. With Denver looking to push the pace, the offense lined up quickly in an attempt to keep the drive going and catch the Rams off guard. But Jenkins had other ideas and as he jogged back to the opposite of the field, he reached down and knocked the ball away from Broncos center Will Montgomery.

The officials saw Jenkins' move and promptly threw a flag for a 5-yard delay of game infraction. Apparently, Jenkins needed a breather.

“That’s what I was told," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "I have yet to confirm that, I didn’t talk to him today. We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

The penalty took a potential third-and-8 and made it third-and-3, but Jenkins was bailed out by Manning overthrowing tight end Jacob Tamme on the next play to lead to a punt. No harm was done, but it was the type of silly penalty that could have kept a drive alive.

“I could understand him being tired," Fisher said. "With that tempo and that pace and everything and him chasing, playing deep balls and defending deep balls…they were trying to get up on the line and we were trying to get a sub done. As it worked out, we would not have had any problems defensively. You can’t do that. I thought it was an excellent call. You don’t see that very often. For [head linesman] George Hayward to see that and call that was good officiating.”

It was just another strange play on yet another adventurous day for Jenkins. He was also responsible for allowing the Broncos' lone touchdown before the end of the half when he didn't stay over the top on a deep ball that went to Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders for a 42-yard score.

The Film Don't Lie: Rams

November, 18, 2014
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A weekly look at what the St. Louis Rams must fix:

The Rams finally wrap up their brutal eight-game stretch this week with a trip to San Diego to face the Chargers. If they are to emerge from that matchup with their first two-game winning streak of the season, they are going to have to find a way to finish drives more consistently.

Even during Sunday's 22-7 win against the Denver Broncos, the Rams' failure to score touchdowns after reaching the red zone three times was enough to leave many believing they hadn't done enough to put the Broncos away when the opportunity continued to present itself.

The Rams defense was stout enough to make field goals stand up, and the way that group is playing right now, perhaps they can continue to replicate that effort. But it sure would make things easier on everybody if the Rams found a way to reach the end zone on a more consistent basis.

After the 0-for-3 performance against the Broncos, the Rams are scoring touchdowns on just 52 percent of their trips inside the opponent's 20. That's tied for 21st in the NFL, well behind the 77.4 percent of the Broncos. The Rams' 12 red zone touchdowns are tied with Oakland for second fewest in the NFL.

There could be some good news on the horizon for the Rams this week, though, as San Diego's red zone defense is one of the worst in the league, allowing 66.7 percent of those drives to go for touchdowns, 28th in the NFL.

For the Rams to get their red zone offense going, they might need to lean more on the pass. They are completing 69 percent of their passes inside the 20, but if they do throw, they have to be better at getting rid of the ball quickly. The Rams have taken four red zone sacks this season, second most in the NFL.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- After St. Louis Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree's big performance against the Arizona Cardinals last week, I asked coach Jeff Fisher what had been the key to Ogletree's improved performance in the previous two games.

[+] EnlargeAlec Ogletree
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsOutside linebacker Alec Ogletree had a standout performance in the Rams' 22-7 win against Denver.
That effort came on the heels of a couple of rough outings, including a brief benching at the end of the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs after he picked up a second personal foul penalty. Fisher explained the Rams' recent alterations that helped put Ogletree in better position to make plays.

"He's played good football," Fisher said last week. "We've made a concerted effort to get him behind the ball, [defensive coordinator Gregg] Williams has. That's where he's best, just running and slipping blocks and taking on blocks. He's been much more productive. Good pressure. Ball skills, hands-on. He's playing much better in the last two weeks."

Ogletree followed those two performances with an even better one against the Denver Broncos this past week. According to unofficial pressbox statistics, Ogletree had 13 tackles, an interception, a pass breakup and a batted pass against Denver.

So Fisher was asked again Monday what's been the key to Ogletree's recent surge. He offered a similar refrain.

"I think he's got much better feel for what we're doing," Fisher said. "We're using him a lot more behind the ball, as opposed to just lining up on the line of scrimmage like a tight end. He's rushing well and I think (LB) James [Laurinaitis] is doing some really good things in there right now as far as identifying protections and putting us in positions to get free runners. Alec is playing really good in space."

This time, however, Fisher added one more small detail.

"It took him a while to get in good shape," Fisher said.

Apparently, Ogletree didn't report to training camp in the best shape and it took him some time to get to his normal conditioning level and speed.

"I don't think he was in the best of shape when he came to camp," Fisher said. "So, I think he's playing himself into really good shape right now."

That Ogletree didn't come to camp prepared is a disappointment and likely contributed to his slow start this season. He's played as well as any Rams defender over the past three weeks and his ascent has coincided with the entire defense's recent dominance. Which leaves one to wonder what could have been had he come in ready to go in the first place.
ST. LOUIS -- Let there be no lingering doubt: Tre Mason is the St. Louis Rams' starting running back and primary ball carrier.

If that wasn't already evident before the Rams' 22-7 victory against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, it should be plenty clear in the aftermath. Against the league's best run defense both in terms of yards allowed per game (67) and yards allowed per carry (3.19), Mason registered the first 100-yard game of his career and the most rushing yards against Denver this season. He finished with 113 yards on 29 carries, a middling but deceptive average of 3.9 yards per attempt.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Michael B. Thomas/Getty ImagesThe Rams fed the Broncos a steady diet of Tre Mason, and it worked.
“That’s how you have to beat this team,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

While that average won't blow anyone away, the fact that Mason even got to 29 carries is a feat in and of itself. The Broncos had faced the fewest rushing attempts in the league this year, in no small part because they often shut down the run early and jump out to big leads.

But Mason was effective enough early on that the offense was able to move the ball and keep Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on the sideline. Although the Rams defense was doing just fine on its own, it's a widely accepted theory that the best defense against Manning is often a good offense, especially one that can run the ball consistently.

"You have got to have that mindset, got to get first downs, got to stay on the field," Mason said. "I was doing everything in my power to keep us on the field."

Mason and the Rams did just that, controlling the battle in time of possession by keeping the ball for 35 minutes and 50 seconds to Denver's 24:10. They had 16 first downs and rushed for 131 yards on 33 carries as a team, their best output of the season on the ground.

And while Mason spent plenty of time hammering away between the tackles, he was also also able to shake loose for a big gain every once in a while. His 27-yard run was his fourth 20-plus-yard carry of the season; he remains the only Ram to do that this season.

Clearly, the Rams trust Mason enough to turn the game over to him, too. His 29 carries were the most by a Ram this season by 10. Even if many of those runs didn't get very far, Mason's performance was instrumental in taking the Rams to an unexpected victory.

"That’s just the way football is," Mason said. "Sometimes you have got to grind them out. It might not be a big play every play, but you’ve got to grind them out sometimes. That extra 1 or 2 [yards] means a lot when you’re on the goal line, so if you’re on the goal line, it can be the difference between a score and a first down."
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ST. LOUIS -- Bundling up before heading into a snowy evening, St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis paused when a reporter mentioned to him that his team could have pitched a shutout against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

"Should have pitched a shutout," Laurinaitis quickly corrected.

Indeed the Rams' defense, perhaps playing as well as any group in the league over the past three weeks, could have held Peyton Manning and the high-octane Broncos scoreless in the Rams' stunning 22-7 victory at the Edward Jones Dome. As it was, they held Denver to its lowest point total since Manning arrived in 2012. It was also the first time since Week 13 of 2001 that Manning had attempted 20 or more passes and his team scored seven or fewer points.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsThe Rams consistently pressured Peyton Manning, including this fourth-quarter sack by Aaron Donald.
For coordinator Gregg Williams' defense, there have been signs of reaching Max Q the past two weeks but shutting down Manning & Co. served as the ultimate notice to the rest of the league that the Rams are not a team, especially not a defense, you want to see on the schedule over the season's final six games.

"The scheme is built so that, if everyone is on the same page, you can play really fast," Laurinaitis said. "I think the last few weeks we have been able to just come in and play extremely fast and trust each other and know we don’t have to be perfect but let’s be aggressive. The light bulb is kind of switching on but we have got to keep that thing on, I don’t want it to run out."

If the Rams can find a way to duplicate Sunday's combination of scheme and execution, the light bulb should be able to burn brightly for the rest of the season.

Although the Broncos had 397 total yards, the Rams held them to 28 yards on 10 carries. Over the past two weeks, they've allowed just 56 rushing yards on 32 carries, which is the best two-game stretch against the run in franchise history. In making that group so one-dimensional, the Rams were able to throw a variety of tricks at Manning.

Instead of the usual two or three checks that Laurinaitis can make out of certain offensive looks, the Rams had six or seven. On defensive tackle Aaron Donald's fourth-down sack in the fourth quarter, Laurinaitis got called out as the MIC linebacker by Broncos rookie center Will Montgomery. Laurinaitis had shown blitz but offered a subtle change at the line of scrimmage, switching the side where he lined up in an effort to create enough confusion to throw the Broncos off.

At the snap, Montgomery took the bait and end Robert Quinn peeled around the inside to Manning. Quinn was unable to bring Manning down, but Donald cleaned it up for a sack.

And the tweaks weren't just based out of blitz looks, either. On cornerback Trumaine Johnson's fourth-quarter interception, the Rams showed a normal Cover 3 look before the snap, something Manning had probably seen plenty of times in his tape study. But Williams had installed a different coverage from the same look earlier in the week and Manning threw down the right sideline where Johnson made an acrobatic interception.

"As long as all 11 are on the same page, we’ll be all right," Laurinaitis said. "That’s a great job by the defensive coaching staff knowing it would come to that and the best part about Gregg Williams is he gives me the freedom to call stuff if I don’t want to check and the feeling of the play just isn’t right, we play the call. A couple of times it happened and a couple of times he checked. It was the combination of a great game plan and just executing."

Of more importance than the yardage, the Rams held Denver to 4-of-12 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth. They also had two interceptions, two sacks, four quarterback hits and 12 pass breakups. Of those dozen breakups, five came from Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree near the line of scrimmage.

Even when Manning completed a pass, a member of the Rams' secondary was there to greet him with a crushing blow such as Rodney McLeod's big hit (and subsequent penalty) on Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

"It energizes us but, also, they know," McDonald said. "The offense knows that you put that ball up, you’re going to feel it. I think that’s something we take pride in, being a physical defense and offenses knowing that it’s not sweet [out there]."
ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 22-7 victory over the Denver Broncos:

Fisher
The right stuff: Entering the season, the Rams were built to win on the back of a strong defense, strong special teams and an offense that runs the ball effectively and doesn't turn it over. That blueprint hasn't been on display much, but 10 games into the season, the Rams are starting to believe they've found it.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher pointed to Sunday's impressive win against the reigning AFC champion as a near-perfect example of who his team would like to be.

"Great win, as good a game as we can play in all three areas," Fisher said. "Coaches did a great job with the plan. We were able to stick with the plan because the players executed."

A near shutout: As crazy as it sounds, the one regret the Rams defense had from Sunday's game is that they had a legitimate shot to keep the high-powered Broncos off the scoreboard. Were it not for yet another coverage breakdown, that's exactly what would have happened. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Rodney McLeod had a mix-up near the end of the first half resulting in Emmanuel Sanders' 42-yard touchdown catch.

Fisher said it was one of three coverage breakdowns the Rams had, but Peyton Manning was unable to take advantage of the other two.

Injury free? After the game, Fisher made no mention of any glaring injuries. We'll see where everybody is when the team returns to practice Wednesday.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

November, 16, 2014
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ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 22-7 victory over the Denver Broncos at the Edward Jones Dome.

What it means: The Rams can play with and beat anybody in the NFL. Seriously. With Sunday's win, they now own victories against three of the four 2013 conference finalists: the Broncos, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. After nearly half a season of waiting and wondering when coordinator Gregg Williams' defense would ascend to an elite level that would allow the Rams to compete with anyone, his group has taken off in the past three weeks. Beating Peyton Manning and the league's top offense is the ultimate sign that this defense is capable of keeping the Rams in and potentially winning any game left on the schedule. It didn't hurt that quarterback Shaun Hill played mistake-free football, the special teams were strong, and the Rams offered Denver no help in its comeback attempt. At 4-6, the Rams have an uphill climb to get into the postseason, but at worst, they are the team none of the league's contenders want to play down the stretch.

Stock watch: Up -- Running back Tre Mason: It's been tough sledding in the past couple of weeks for the Rams rookie, but he found a little momentum against the league's stoutest run defense entering Sunday. Mason rushed for 113 yards on 29 carries, the most yards by a runner against the Broncos this season. While Mason hit some big runs, including a 27-yarder in the third quarter, he also did plenty of dirty work between the tackles. He's the future for the Rams at running back, and the future is now.

Conversion turnaround: After his team went 1-of-10 on third down last week against Arizona, Rams coach Jeff Fisher pointed to the lack of conversions as a primary reason for his offense being stuck in the mud. The Rams apparently found some solutions as Hill found himself using his feet, creating space and finding receivers to keep the chains moving. They finished 6-of-17 on third down, which not only was crucial in keeping their offense on the field but also keeping Manning & Co. off it.

Game ball: Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- It took longer than most had hoped, perhaps too long for the Rams to make a genuine playoff run, but Williams' group is playing with the confidence and swagger of a top-five unit in the league. The defense shut down the run (10 carries for 28 yards), pressured Manning (two sacks, four quarterback hits), piled up 12 pass breakups and, most important, allowed just seven points. Were it not for a first-half coverage breakdown, Williams' crew would have pitched a shutout.

What's next: After a one-week cameo at home, the Rams head back to the West Coast to finally end the eight-game stretch facing all teams with 2013 winning records with a trip to San Diego.
ST. LOUIS -- Not that there's ever a good week to be without your full complement of players at any position, but the St. Louis Rams will be short on cornerbacks Sunday against the Denver Broncos.

That's especially concerning given that the Broncos come to town with Peyton Manning at quarterback and an array of talented pass catchers who are hard to match anywhere in the league. On the team's pregame inactive list, the Rams are without nickel corner Lamarcus Joyner and cornerback Marcus Roberson. Joyner and Roberson missed practice all week with groin and ankle injuries, respectively.

If there's a silver lining to be found, it's that the Rams will have probably their three best corners available for this one, with Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and E.J. Gaines available. With Joyner out, it's safe to expect Gaines to move inside in the nickel, with Johnson and Jenkins on the outside.

When the Rams have to go to further sub packages, they'll likely turn to their three-safety package with Rodney McLeod, T.J. McDonald and Mark Barron on the field together.

Here's the complete list of inactives for Sunday's game:

Rams: DB Lamarcus Joyner, CB Marcus Roberson, LB Daren Bates, WR Damian Williams, OT Brandon Washington, TE Alex Bayer, DT Alex Carrington.

Broncos: WR Cody Latimer, RB Ronnie Hillman, CB Tony Carter, RB Kapri Bibbs, LB Todd Davis, OT Michael Schofield, TE Virgil Green.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Aside from the fact that this is indeed his first year in the NFL, there's very little about St. Louis Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines that would let you know he's only a rookie.

Gaines' game tape offers some ups and downs as many rookies have but he's also a cornerback, a position with more volatility than any on the defense. For the most part, though, Gaines has left almost anyone paying attention impressed with how the sixth-round draft pick has adapted to the NFL.

[+] EnlargeE.J. Gaines
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsRookie cornerback E.J. Gaines has shined in pass coverage for the Rams.
"I feel like being a rookie playing so much you have to get better as the season goes on," Gaines said. "You can’t stay the same and keep using rookie as an excuse to make a mistake. I like to get out there and try to do better each and every game."

So far, Gaines has succeeded in that quest. In nine games, Gaines has 39 tackles, a fumble recovery, an interception and five pass breakups.

For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus grades Gaines as the Rams' second-best defensive player, coincidentally only behind another rookie in defensive tackle Aaron Donald. That same grading scale rates Gaines in a tie as the 11th-most productive corner in the league.

Perhaps more impressive is how Gaines has handled everything that's been thrown at him. After the third preseason game, Gaines was thrust into the starting role when Trumaine Johnson suffered a knee injury. He has since stepped in and started every game outside.

When rookie nickel corner Lamarcus Joyner suffered a groin injury against Arizona last week, Gaines had little problem sliding into the slot and taking on a different role.

"He was fine," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He got his hands on the ball. Didn’t have any problems … we didn’t have to scale down the third-down package per se. He prepares mentally for it and thought he plugged in nicely.

"[It] tells you a lot about him, he’s gone from outside to inside just during the course of a game."

Signs point to Gaines having to do even more work in the nickel this week against Denver with Joyner not practicing because of a groin injury. Playing in the slot against the likes of Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders is no easy task for any corner, never mind a rookie who hasn't spent much time playing inside where things happen faster and there's more space to cover.

But Gaines said Wednesday he doesn't expect it to be much of a problem and cited the chance to work on it more during the week as a reason he'd be better prepared to handle nickel duties than he was a week ago.

"It’s a lot on my plate but I feel like I’m definitely ready for it," Gaines said. "I try not to look at myself like a rookie. I try to play like a vet. I do as many things as I can like a veteran to help this football team, help this defense out."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams wrapped up their preparations for the Denver Broncos on Friday, and all signs point to linebacker James Laurinaitis being ready to go.

Laurinaitis
Laurinaitis missed practice Wednesday, but was back at full speed Friday and is listed as probable for this weekend. Joining him with that designation are linebacker Will Herring and defensive end William Hayes.

Defensive tackle Alex Carrington is questionable, and the Rams will have some questions on the back end with cornerback Marcus Roberson (ankle) listed as out and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner (groin) as doubtful.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher said defensive end Chris Long (ankle) will not be activated this week. He still has plenty of time left in his 21-day window for that to happen.

Here is the complete rundown of Friday's injury report:

Out: CB Roberson (ankle).

Doubtful: CB Joyner (groin), WR Damian Williams (hamstring), LB Daren Bates (groin).

Questionable: DT Carrington (quad).

Probable: LB Laurinaitis (foot), LB Herring (foot), DE Hayes (fibula).

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