His postgame media session over, Benny Cunningham had just sat down on his stool in the Edward Jones Dome locker room when he got an unexpected visit.
“Good work out there,” the visitor told Cunningham.
“Appreciate it, thank you,” Cunningham replied.
It was Marshall Faulk.
“The man. The man himself,” Cunningham said, smiling. “That most definitely is an honor. It feels good to see these legends on a daily basis.”
During a training camp and preseason punctuated with visits from former Rams greats Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, Hall of Famer Faulk has been around some as well as one of the analysts for Rams preseason telecasts.
When told that his locker room appearance made Cunningham’s night, Faulk replied: “He made his own night.”
That he did. Cunningham caught everyone’s eyes by rushing eight times for 76 yards in Thursday’s 24-21 victory over Baltimore in the Rams’ preseason finale.
To put that in perspective, Cunningham’s rushing total was more than the Rams had been averaging as a team on the ground in their first three exhibition contests. For the undrafted rookie from Middle Tennessee State, it put an exclamation point on his return from a knee injury (and subsequent surgery) suffered last season for the Blue Raiders.
“It’s been a long road to recovery for me, and I feel like I showed the coaches that the injury’s behind me,” he said. “Hopefully they see that, you know, when they watch film. They watch how I played, the attitude I have. The effort I put into it.”
It’s hard to miss. Showing a surprising burst for someone with a stocky frame, the 5-10, 217-pound running back led the Rams in rushing for the preseason with 123 yards on 20 carries – a 6.2-yard average. He also had the team’s longest run for the preseason, a 29-yarder later in the third quarter against Baltimore that helped set up the Rams’ second touchdown. Three series later, his 16-yard run off left tackle put the Rams in the red zone prior to the 17-yard catch and run by Chase Reynolds for the game-winning TD.
So what was the highlight of Cunningham’s night? His 76 yards rushing, or the tip of the cap from Faulk?
“I feel like both,” Cunningham said, laughing.
Preseason or not, Cunningham’s play characterized what was a much-needed revival in the running game. After averaging only 3.0 yards per carry and 63 yards per game on the ground entering the Baltimore game, the Rams rushed for 171 yards on 36 carries against the Ravens.
“The running backs did well,” Fisher said after the game. “Benny’s quick and powerful, and same with Zac (Stacy). They were able to keep the chains moving. You like to see the second-and-five’s and the second-and-four’s.”
The following day, after looking at the game film, Fisher said he liked the overall run blocking by the offense – particularly the blocking by the receivers.
“(The Ravens) weren’t too awfully complicated but we ran inside, we got the ball on the perimeter,” Fisher said. “I thought the backs ran with good vision. So it was a productive day for us. We needed to get (the running game) back. We felt like this would be the week to work on it.”
Earlier in the week, Fisher explained that the running game in some ways had taken a back seat during the first three preseason games because the emphasis was more on developing the young receiver corps.
“We’ll be OK in the run game,” Fisher said. “We feel like the better we are downfield with the (receiver) matchups, the more opportunities it will create for us in the run game.”
Besides Cunningham, Isaiah Pead had a fairly effective night against Baltimore on the ground (seven for 27) although he did fumble on a kickoff return, with the Rams recovering. Once again, Stacy’s yard-per-carry average wasn’t impressive – 3.4 yards – but he once again displayed a knack for gaining tough yards by burrowing his way across the goal line on a one-yard TD plunge in the second quarter. He had the heaviest workload of any Rams back Thursday with 11 carries for 37 yards.
“It’s all about getting a rhythm or what-not, just getting the feel of the game,” Stacy said. “The more hits you take, the more accustomed you become throughout the game. So it was good to get my feet wet a little bit, series after series after series.”
Meanwhile, Daryl Richardson was among a plethora of Rams starters to be held out of the Baltimore game. He was given the veteran’s treatment throughout the preseason by Fisher with only nine carries in August football. In comparison, Pead, Stacy, and Cunningham each got from 20 to 26 carries.
At face value, it looks like nothing more was settled at running back in the preseason other than the fact that Richardson is the starter. Will Pead still be No. 2 on Sept. 8 against Arizona? Or does Stacy or Cunningham move up the depth chart?
“Whatever the case may be,” Stacy said. “Right now, I’m just trying to develop a role of whenever I get the opportunity to just make the most of it, to put the offense and this team in the best possible situation to be successful.”