If you could take a picture of the kind of football the Rams are playing these days, it might be a photo of James Laurinaitis’ face.
There’s that cut at the bridge of his nose that seemingly won’t go away. And then there’s that right ear. It took seven stitches after a helmet-to-helmet collision with Andrew Luck at the goal line three weeks ago in Indianapolis.
Things were healing up nicely, the stitches were scheduled to be taken out after the Chicago game. Alas, Lauinaitis cracked heads with the Bears’ burly running back, Michael Bush. There was blood all over the top of Laurinaitis’ jersey after that contest.
“We had to rip out all the stitches,” Laurinaitis said. “They had to numb it up again, take all of ‘em out and re-stitch it up. They put 11 (stitches) in there hoping that 11 will hold it better than seven.”
When told the ear looked kind of ugly, Laurinaitis nodded and replied: “Oh yeah. Between that, the nose, I feel like I should be playing for the Blues.”
Like Laurinaitis, the Rams as a whole have put on their game face.
It’s just taken a while. They have finally found their identity on offense, defense, and special teams, just in time for a return engagement Sunday against the rough-and-tumble San Francisco 49ers. Kickoff is 3:05 p.m. (St. Louis time) at Candlestick Park.
After being pushed around 35-11 by San Francisco in a Thursday night game Sept. 26, the Rams walked off the field of the Edward Jones Dome with a 1-3 record and Frank Gore’s cleat marks all over them. Previously struggling, Gore rushed for 153 yards and 7.7 yards a carry that night.
All told the 49ers rolled up 219 yards rushing ... to the Rams’ 18 yards on 19 carries. And did we mention quarterback Sam Bradford was under siege all night, in part because 49ers linebacker Navorro Bowman secured a front-row seat — unobstructed view — in the Rams’ backfield.
“We got our butts kicked,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. “It was embarrassing. So we’re going out there to prove a point. It’s a big NFC West game. We need this game.”
So do the 49ers. At 7-4, they are three games behind division-leading Seattle and seemingly resigned to a wild-card slot in order to reach the playoffs for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, at 5-6 the Rams are trying to get in the postseason discussion after defeating their last two opponents — the Colts and Bears — by a combined score of 80-29.
“Every game’s a big game when you’re in our position,” said left guard Chris Williams. “It’s like every week’s a playoff game pretty much. So we’re trying to stay loose, we’re having fun, and playing fast. We’re just gonna try and keep that going.”
In other words, they’re trying to do the exact opposite of just about everything that occurred in late September against the 49ers.
“I think earlier in the year, we were kind of passive-aggressive,” Laurinaitis said. “And now our defense is more just attacking and aggressive. Not worrying about being perfect all the time.”
That first 49ers game, Laurinaitis added, “was just a wakeup. You watch the tape from the squad we had last year in the two (San Francisco) games and you’re like: ‘Yeah, we fought toe-to-toe in some battles with them.’ ”
Last season, the Rams played the 49ers to a 24-24 tie at Candlestick Park in mid-November and then defeated them 16-13 in overtime three weeks later in St. Louis. They were tough, physical, intense games.
“And then you look at the first game with them this year ... and you’re like, ‘We don’t even know who that team is really.’ ” Laurinaitis said.
A fourth-and-1 run by Gore that went for a 34-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left in the opening half was a back-breaker in the September loss this season. Instead of trailing by 7-3 at the half, the Rams were down 14-3. It was a game where the Rams didn’t keep their energy and intensity up for 60 minutes, and that still gnaws at Laurinaitis.
“I think that’s the most disappointing thing about the first game, because we didn’t do that,” he said. “Right now, the tape that (the 49ers) are watching, I guarantee, is the last game (Sept. 26). They’re thinking, ‘Well, is that this Rams team or is it a different team?’
“I think we’re a different team. But the only way to get that respect is to go out and earn it.”
The Rams appear to be a different team almost across the board since they played San Francisco in Game 4. They are averaging 151.9 yards rushing in their last seven games, second in the NFL to Washington’s 175.4 over that span.
Rookie Zac Stacy has been the fourth-most productive running back in the NFL over those seven games, with 620 yards rushing.
“Offensively, what we do is different and how we approach the game,” Williams said. “Obviously, we’re different at quarterback and that kind of thing. A lot of the young guys are starting to come out of their shell a little bit.”
The Rams averaged 48 passes a game in their first four games; they’re averaging 27 pass attempts in the seven games since then as part of their muscle-ball approach.
Special teams has made a startling improvement in terms of cutting back penalties, many of which cost the team dearly.
And defense? Well, the secondary is banged up, the cornerback position paper thin due to injury. But the unit has been more aggressive and competitive lately. Meanwhile, the front seven is snarling.
“Last year we played with an edge,” Laurinaitis said. “We were scrappy. It was just an attitude that you know what, this wasn’t the same old Rams. You’re gonna have to deal with us. And I think that’s kind of what we’ve gotten back to. A lot of it started in Carolina.”
They’re going to need it to continue Sunday in order to hang with the ‘Niners.
Because, as Laurinaitis said: “This week’s gonna be a true fight.”