Next Step for Rams: A Road Win

Posted Oct 12, 2012

Five games into a 2012 season that has seen them get off to a better start than many expected, the Rams have already hit some important benchmarks.

They’ve won a pair of NFC West Division games, they’ve surged above .500 for the first time since 2006 and they’ve established a certain level of homefield advantage with three consecutive victories at the Edward Jones Dome.

As the Rams head to Miami for Sunday’s noon kickoff at Sun Life Stadium, it’s not about what they have done to this point so much as it’s about what they haven’t done: win a game on the road.

“You’ve just got to go in there and stay focused and find a way to win it,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “That’s our next challenge. Our next challenge is our next opponent and it happens to be on the road.”

Fisher might publicly downplay the need for his team to get a victory on the road; after all, they’ve only played two so far this season and nearly had one in the season opener at Detroit. But in the Rams locker room and various meeting rooms, the sense of urgency to find a victory away from the confines of their home field is tangible.

“It’s definitely something that we haven’t been able to accomplish all year long,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “It’s something that we have kind of dedicated some time and some focus to this week; being able to travel well. A good team travels well, good defenses travel well. That’s something we have talked about and mentioned in the linebacker room and as a defensive staff. So we have to come to this week and approach it as an us against the world mentality, play focused, play hard and make some things happen defensively.”

The Rams enter Sunday’s game riding the high of a two-game winning streak after taking care of business against division foes Seattle and Arizona in a five-day span. They have a 3-2 record and are staring at the possibility of a three-game winning streak for the first time since the last three games of the 2006 season.

Miami enters with a 2-3 record but is coming off a surprising win against Cincinnati on the road last week. The Dolphins have struggled in recent seasons but bear some resemblance to the Rams in that they have a new coach in Joe Philbin, a stout defense and some emerging young players on offense complemented by a top-level running back.

Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford, who signed with the Rams after spending his first four seasons in Miami, knows the task that lies ahead of his new team this weekend and stressed the importance of taking the crowd out of the game early.

“When it’s going they are good but if we get going then it’s the Miami Rams,” Langford said. We all know those guys down there are passionate about their football, the fans. They want to win. If we go out there and do what we are supposed to do, then we’ll be fine.”

With such a small sample size in terms of road opportunities, it’d be unfair to label the Rams as the type of team that can only win at home, unable to overcome the difficulties that go with playing in a strange venue in the NFL.

St. Louis had the Lions on the ropes and might have pulled out a victory in the season opener if not for a clock operator error. The Rams also had their worst showing of the season in Chicago in week 3 though even that game was within one score into the fourth quarter.

Playing in those close games should benefit the Rams moving forward. For evidence of that, simply look at this week’s opponent, which has found ways to win in close games of late.

“It is a learning opportunity,” Fisher said. “You learn how to win. You learn the importance of staying in the game and playing through some adverse situations and you having a chance to win at the end and then going ahead and getting it done. That’s what they did last week at Cincinnati, that’s what they almost did against the Jets in overtime.”

There might be, perhaps, no league out there in which the homefield advantage has a more direct impact on the game than the NFL. Playing on the road, especially for a young team, can present plenty of challenges both tangible and intangible.

It’s particularly hard on the traveling offenses which have to deal with crowd noise and adjusting snap counts.

“Obviously for us, communication is more of a challenge on the road,” quarterback Sam Bradford said.  “Playing on the road, you have to deal with the crowd noise. You’ve got to deal with the silent count. Being able to get everything communicated at the line of scrimmage. Our wide receivers aren’t able to hear, so they’ve got to be tapped into signals. Sometimes, when you’re on the road, you’ve got to overcome adversity. When you’re at home, you can feed off your crowd, you can feed off of playing at home in an environment that you’re really comfortable in, whereas sometimes on the road, you’ve got to learn to overcome certain things. I think it just comes with going out and doing it. I think once we get one under our belt, hopefully, more will come.”

Aside from the game itself and the atmosphere, the lack of routine can also be tough to overcome. By their very nature athletes are creatures of habit. On the road, meals are different, beds are different and wake up calls come at different times.

That’s why teams go to great lengths to give their players discipline and order when on the road.

“I’m not really an order room service kind of guy,” Dunbar said. “For me it’s just making sure I stay in my book, making sure I keep some of the younger guys focused and me and James taking care of our room. It’s about everybody approaching their room with the same common goal of getting a win on the road. It’s been difficult for us and I am sure it’s going to be difficult at Sun Life Stadium.”

For this Rams team, one thing that certainly isn’t lacking is the mentality needed to win. Trickling down from Fisher at the top, the Rams have made it quite clear they won’t be intimidated by any opponent or situation. That won’t be any different against the Dolphins.

“I don’t think it’s a confidence level thing at all,” Bradford said. “I think every time we take the field, we’re extremely confident in our abilities, in our plan, in our ability to go out there and execute. I think it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”

The value of a win against Miami would go well beyond just getting the first road win under the belt and marking off the next thing on the check list.

A three-game winning streak going into a daunting stretch that will see the Rams play Green Bay, New England and San Francisco in their following three contests would go a long way toward helping the Rams enter the season’s second half with everything out there to achieve.

“Anytime you can go into someone else’s house and win, that’s huge in this league,” Langford said. “We had two road games where we didn’t get it done but I think this will be the game where everyone is going to go in ready to play and we can come out with a W.”