As part of the NFC West Division, Rams coach Jeff Fisher knew what he was getting into in terms of at least six games every season.
Bearing a strong resemblance to the old black and blue division, the current incarnation features four teams; the Rams included, with a commitment to smashmouth, hard-nosed football with an offensive emphasis on a power running game.
So it was no surprise for the Rams last week when they made slowing San Francisco’s second-ranked run game the top priority. And the defense answered the call, limiting Niners running back Frank Gore to 58 yards on 23 carries, an average of just 2.5 yards per attempt.
As it turns out, that game served as a perfect table-setter for what Fisher and the Rams defense is going to see for the rest of the regular season, starting Sunday against Buffalo’s AFC-leading rushing attack and the two-headed monster of speedy C.J. Spiller and steady Fred Jackson.
“They’ve got as good a one-two punch in the backfield as anybody in the league and obviously the pressure’s on our defense,” Fisher said. “Sunday we faced the No. 2 team in the National Football League in rushing. This week we face the third team, they’re third in rushing average and then unfortunately, not to look ahead, but the Vikings are first in rushing average. So, we’re finding out about our defense.”
The Bills are actually fourth in the league in rushing average but third, fourth, it really doesn’t matter because the fact remains that Buffalo is the next in a line of talented running games that the Rams’ ability to slow will ultimately decide their fate for the 2012 season.
While Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin and old pal Marshawn Lynch of Seattle – ranked first, tied for third and second, respectively in rushing yards this year – await in closing out the regular season, the Rams are well aware that they can’t afford to look ahead to any of those challenges.
Of course, that’s not to say the Rams aren’t aware of what lurks as the holidays approach.
“Absolutely,” middle linebacker
The first challenge comes this week and might be the toughest if only because of the different looks Spiller and Jackson present. Although Spiller and Jackson aren’t on the level of Peterson, Martin and Lynch in terms of individual production, it’s their complementary game and the Bills’ offensive approach that makes them dangerous.
And, though the Rams certainly gained some confidence from their efforts shutting down Gore last week, there isn’t much that can be taken from that outing schematically because the Bills bring a completely different style though the general approach and priority has to remain the same.
“They’re very different style running football teams,” end
Making the pair even more dangerous is Buffalo’s considerable screen game, which the Bills use from a variety of angles out of many packages on any given down.
Buffalo has completed 79 passes behind the line of scrimmage for 567 yards and two touchdowns. Spiller and Jackson have combined for 62 receptions, 540 yards and two touchdowns receiving.
According to Laurinaitis, in the past four games, the Bills have run more than 30 screens.
“Their ability to throw screens is better than any other team we have seen all year so they run a lot of screens,” Laurinaitis said. “They are good at it and they have got the play makers in space to do it. So they are two impressive guys and they’re a big challenge for us.”
At 6’1, 216 pounds, Jackson isn’t quite big enough to be known as a bruiser and not small enough to be deemed a quick, scatback type. Instead, he’s somewhere in the middle, combining power and speed.
Spiller is a whole different type of headache that brings the type of exhilarating, home run speed and elusiveness that can’t be bottled. He’s listed at 5’11, 200 pounds but brings enough speed that he’s essentially a blur when the Rams see him on film.
“They’re two different headaches,” Laurinaitis said. “Jackson’s obviously a very powerful, slasher-type runner. To me, C.J. Spiller is an every-down home run threat.”
Although Jackson has dealt with injuries this season that have stalled his production, he returned last week against Jacksonville and promptly ripped off 109 yards on 25 carries. He’s been the team’s primary back in recent years but a knee injury last year and a concussion as well as more knee issues have kept him out of three games this year.
Formerly entrenched as the starter before last year’s knee injury, Jackson has had to cede more and more carries to the emerging Spiller. He became the Bills starter in week 13 last year and immediately became the type of player that can score every time the ball is in his hands.
This year, Spiller leads the AFC in rushing average (6.6 yards per carry), runs of 20-plus yards (11) and is seventh in scrimmage yards (1,246).
“He jumps off the film,” Long said. “He’s so athletic. He makes so many people miss on one play, so we’re just gonna have to rally to the ball, and honestly it just takes more than one guy to get him down.”
To put a historical perspective on it, should Spiller finish even within a half-yard of his current yards per carry clip, he’ll pass O.J. Simpson for the best average in a season in franchise history.
Taking it a step further, from 1960 to now, should Spiller finish with his current 6.62 average, it would be the second highest mark in league history among players with t least 120 carries through 12 games, trailing only the legendary Jim Brown’s 6.71.
“It is a challenge,” Fisher said. “C.J.’s average per carry and they get the ball to him dozens of ways through quick screens and screens and hands off, so it really keeps you honest and you can have people unblocked in the hole and he makes them miss. So, we’ve got our hands full.”
Three-quarters of the way through the season, the Rams run defense has been solid if inconsistent, ranking 13th in the league against the run, allowing 114.4 yards per game. They’ve only allowed two 100-yard rushers on the season.
It’s no coincidence that in their wins or ties this year, the Rams are allowing just 3.8 yards per carry and in their losses; they’re giving up 4.5 yards per attempt.
For a defense tied for fourth in the NFL with 34 sacks, it has to start with stopping the run. In the Rams’ wins or ties, they have 22 sacks with 12 coming in their losses. They’re well aware that rushing the passer is a privilege that must be earned.
“Everybody likes rushing the passer, but I know my role,” Long said. “I like playing the run and I like the physical game. That’s a lot of fun for me. And it kind of simplifies things for you. We are going to have to worry about stopping the run if we are going to have any chance to rush the passer so we have a great challenge and it’s a great kind of game to play in.”