Rams ready for a bigger stage

2011-09-19T12:25:00Z 2011-10-21T01:33:33Z Rams ready for a bigger stageBY JIM THOMAS • jthomas@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8197 stltoday.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. • The Rams and rookie head coach Scott Linehan were stumbling, with six losses in their past seven games, when Chicago came calling on a Monday night at the Edward Jones Dome.

Torry Holt got the Rams going, beating Bears rookie cornerback Devin Hester on a fade pattern for a second-quarter touchdown catch. But on the only bad snap of Chris Massey's nine-year run in St. Louis, the extra point attempt failed.

So it was only 6-0, Rams, when Hester settled under Jeff Wilkins' kickoff — and returned it 94 yards for a TD. Hester, a rookie from Miami, wasn't finished. He added seven more exclamation points to a 42-27 Bears victory with a 96-yard kickoff return TD in the fourth quarter.

That Dec. 11, 2006 game helped cement Hester's reputation as a dynamic returner and helped seal the Rams' fate as being not ready for prime time. Over the next three seasons, the Rams tumbled into a 6-42 abyss. Linehan was replaced by Jim Haslett, who was replaced by Steve Spagnuolo in 2009.

Chat with Gordo tonight during the game on the Post-Dispatch iPad app or on our free mobile app, Rams Football 2011.

Only after a 7-9 rebound in 2010 under rookie quarterback Sam Bradford has ESPN deemed the Rams fit for a return to "Monday Night Football." In a sense, tonight's 7:30 kickoff (St. Louis time) against the New York Giants symbolizes that the Rams are back on the NFL map. Now, they just have to prove they belong there in their first Monday night contest since that Bears game in '06.

"Growing up as a kid, 'Monday Night Football' was always something that I tried to watch if I wasn't busy (playing sports)," Bradford said. "It was always the highlight of my week if I got to watch it. Now I have the opportunity to play on that stage.

"I look at it as a blessing. I'm extremely excited for this opportunity. I can't wait to get out there. Hopefully we can elevate the status of the Rams and the way we're looked at. Hopefully we can get more of these opportunities."

Last week against Philadelphia, the Rams had an opportunity to show they could hang with the NFL's big boys but squandered that chance with a bevy of dropped passes, penalties, botched scoring opportunities and defensive lapses. Worse yet, the injury list coming out of that 31-13 loss was as long as the litany of errors.

For a couple of days, Bradford's right index finger was the No. 1 concern on that injury list. But it turned out to be merely a bruised finger, and despite some soreness Bradford threw effectively during the practice week and is good to go tonight at MetLife Stadium.

Others weren't so fortunate. Ron Bartell, the second-most tenured Ram behind Steven Jackson and a five-year starter at cornerback, was lost for the season with a fractured neck. Wide receiver Danny Amendola, the team's most productive pass-catcher and one of the league's better punt returners, will miss tonight's game with a dislocated elbow. Jackson, officially listed as questionable by the Rams, isn't expected to play because of a thigh injury.

"Coach (Steve Spagnuolo) has always said when you're a backup in the NFL, you're one ankle turn, one name-what-you-want away from being the starter," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "So you have to prepare like you're the starter. I think everybody on this team does do that. The point's driven home a little more when it actually happens, but we have a ton of faith in the guys that are going to step in."

At cornerback, Justin King is expected to start in Bartell's place, with veteran Al Harris coming in for nickel situations.

"Al has played in the league for a number of years," safety Quintin Mikell said. "So he's ready to go. We got 'JK' (King); he's ready to go. The guy can play. He just needs an opportunity to show what he's got."

At wide receiver, rookie Greg Salas steps into Amendola's slot receiver role and is expected to return punts as well. "We believe Greg will be able to go in there and make some plays," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.

And once again, Cadillac Williams would be called upon to spell Jackson in the backfield, with help from Jerious Norwood.

"As a competitor I still want to go," said Jackson, who will test the thigh today. "But I do have fully 100 percent trust that Cadillac and Jerious will get the job done. Both those guys are proven."

No matter who's on the field tonight for the Rams, they will face a different sort of test in the Giants than they did a week ago against Philly. Offensively, New York has a potent 1-2 punch at both running back (Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs) and wide receiver (Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham). The Rams won't have to chase what defensive coordinator Ken Flajole called "a jackrabbit" like Michael Vick. But when he's on, Eli Manning can be as effective as any quarterback in the league throwing the football.

On defense, the Giants have been clobbered with injuries of their own, including two starters in the secondary (Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara), middle linebacker Jonathan Goff and pass rusher deluxe Osi Umenyiora. Thomas and Goff are on injured reserve; Amukamara and Umenyiora won't play tonight. Another of the Giants' top pass rushers, Justin Tuck, is questionable with a knee injury.

So this game truly has a 'survivor" element to it. Two banged up teams licking their wounds after season-opening losses, trying to avoid an 0-2 start.

"It's still early," Mikell said. "We're still gelling. We're still trying to get everything put together. We've got a lot of new faces, especially on this defense. Obviously, we want to go out there and play well and win. But if something bad happens, we're not going to go jump off a ledge. Because we've got a lot of football left."

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