In winning four of seven games between the first San Francisco game (Sept. 26) and the rematch Dec. 1, the Rams showed improvement across the board. But it was the running game, headed by Zac Stacy, that led the way.
In those seven contests, the Rams averaged 151.9 rushing yards per game, the second-highest total in the NFL over that span. That kind of production was a far cry from the first four contests, when they averaged 47.3 yards per game, 2.6 yards per carry, and ranked last in the league in rushing.
But over the last two games, the 49ers and Cardinals have been able to stop Stacy early and earn double-digit victories. The overall rushing numbers are misleading in both contests.
In the 23-13 loss at San Francisco, the Rams ended up with 114 yards on 26 carries, or 4.4 yards a crack. And in this past Sunday’s 30-10 defeat in Arizona, the totals were 19 for 100, or 5.3 yards per carry.
But 31 of those yards have come on five Kellen Clemens scrambles in the past two games. And 56 more came on one end-around by Tavon Austin in Arizona.
As for Stacy, it now seems obvious that opposing defenses are focusing on him. He has 97 yards on 33 carries over the last two contests, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. The 49ers and Cardinals were particularly successful in slowing him down in the first half:
• 25 yards on 10 carries in the opening two quarters in San Francisco.
• 11 yards on seven carries in the first half in Arizona.
No ground game means no ball control, and it limits the effectiveness of the play-action pass. As a result, the Rams trailed the 49ers 13-3 at halftime and were down 14-3 at intermission against the Big Red. Most offenses don’t work nearly as well when you make them one-dimensional, and the Rams haven’t been a comeback club under Clemens.
Then again, you can’t play the Chicago Bears every weekend. The Bears rank last in run defense and yielded 258 rushing yards to the Rams on Nov. 24. Meanwhile, the 49ers and the Cardinals rank 10th and third, respectively, in run defense.
When asked why it was so tough to run against Arizona, Fisher replied: “It’s their defense. ... They were very good.”
“We couldn’t get it started. We got some yards, but they were tough yards and, obviously, then we got behind. We’ve run the ball in the second half fairly well, but we didn’t have an opportunity to do this (against Arizona) because of the discrepancy in the score.”
Arizona made it a three-score game 18 seconds into the second half when linebacker Karlos Dansby scored on an interception return. The Big Red tacked on two more points for a 23-3 lead 5½ minutes later when John Abraham sacked Clemens for a safety.
“If you can’t get ahead of the chains on early downs to create second-and-4, second-and-5, then your third-and-7’s are hard to convert,” Fisher said. “And that’s what happened to us in the first half.”
Rodger Saffold, who played both right tackle and right guard Sunday, said the Cardinals made things more difficult by running a lot of different fronts, including some run blitzes that forced the Rams to change their technique.
“They kinda got us pushing sideways in some aspects rather than being able to push up the field,” Saffold said. “So that eliminates some running lanes. We had some five-, six-, seven-yard gains where we really had to push the pile. We really had to push the entire line. It was definitely a grind.”
Saffold added: “It’s to be expected. We’ve run the ball so well, we’re expecting people to do whatever they can to try and stop the run.”
In the NFL, opposing defenses can get a book on quarterbacks or overall schemes once they see them enough. Is the same thing possible for a running back? Namely, what kinds of plays Stacy runs more effectively? What’s the best way to get him on the ground?
Fisher cut that question off midstream during his Monday media session.
“It’s personnel; it’s match-ups; it’s their front,” he said, referring to the Cardinals. “They’re a big front ... playing really well. (Daryl) Washington’s back. They’re sturdy. It was just hard to get creases.”
Stacy is adept at getting yards after contact, moving the pile, and using his low center of gravity to burrow through holes where it seems none exist. But he seemed indecisive at times Sunday, in part because there was little running room.
Left guard Chris Williams had his hands full all day with Calais Campbell, who was the Cardinals most effective lineman. Harvey Dahl, who alternated with Saffold at right guard, was a little rusty — he hadn’t played in six weeks. And center Tim Barnes was making his first NFL start.
Even so, there were at least a couple of times where it appeared Stacy could’ve bounced the play outside but didn’t. The Rams tried one outside run, a misdirection toss to Stacy late in the second quarter. But Abraham, who was a monster the entire game, blew right by the man in front of him — wide receiver Austin Pettis — and blew up the play for a seven-yard loss.
Stacy’s longest run of the day went for nine yards. Interestingly, after rushing for 109 yards against Chicago, Benny Cunningham wasn’t used much against the ’Niners (two carries for 16 yards) or the Cardinals (two for nine). He played only 16 snaps between those two games.