With linebacker Ray Lewis as the cork, Baltimore plugs holes and stuffs running backs as well as any team in the NFL. The Ravens come to St. Louis with a 1-1 record, having beaten Pittsburgh and falling to Tennessee. Those teams feature Rashard Mendenhall (Steelers) and Chris Johnson (Titans) respectively, two backs who combined for more than 2,600 yards last season.
Yet, after two games, the Ravens are ranked fourth in the league in run defense, having allowed 140 yards and a 3.1 yards-per-carry average during those initial confrontations. Making matters worse, the Rams are likely to be without road-paving back Steven Jackson, who remains hampered by a thigh injury. Jackson did not participate in practice Friday.
The Rams also could be without Jackson’s backup, Cadillac Williams, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury. Although Williams ran through some plays in practice, his participation was limited. He is questionable for Sunday and probably looms as a game-time decision.
The math is daunting: a run-snuffing defense vs. a depleted running offense. It doesn’t take imagination to envision quarterback Sam Bradford coming out of Sunday afternoon with more arm fatigue than the Cardinals bullpen.
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo knows the importance of the Rams finding an equation that adds up differently.
"I think you have to (run the ball) in every game," Spagnuolo said. "It doesn’t matter what defense you face, if it’s a good run-stopping defense or they’re not stopping the run real well. I think everything is more effective on offense if we’re able to run the football."
The Rams appeared rather one-dimensional at New York on Monday night. After a robust 187 yards of rushing against Philadelphia in Week 1, the Jackson-less Rams had 59 yards and only one rushing first down against the Giants.
Falling behind on the scoreboard certainly impacts those numbers somewhat, and Spagnuolo isn’t cockeyed enough to suggest the Rams can run wild Sunday. But if the Bradford Bunch is going to have time and space against the Ravens, it seems imperative the Rams keep the defense honest with some semblance of a rushing threat.
"We’ll try to do that no matter who is back there with opportunities to get the ball handed to them," Spagnuolo said.
Moreover, Spagnuolo pointed out the importance of the backs in pass protection. The Rams can’t afford to have Norwood and Porter learn on the fly. "We have them both ready so if that’s the way we have to go, that’s what we’ll do," Spagnuolo added. "I do think the mental challenge of it is more in the protection part."
PETTIS READY TO GO
Receiver Austin Pettis, the team’s third-round pick from Boise State, got extensive time with the offense during practice and stayed afterward to field punts. Greg Salas, who returned punts Monday, is listed as probable with sore ribs. But depending on Salas’ situation, Pettis is the alternative.
One way or another, the rookie figures to see his first action Sunday.
"As of right now, I got some decent reps with the offense this week, so hopefully I can get in there and make some plays," Pettis said.
Pettis did not return any punts in college and said his last return was in high school. But the ability to catch things seems to run in his family. Pettis’ uncle is Gary Pettis, who played center field during 11 seasons in the major leagues (1982-1992). What’s more, Pettis’ grandfather was Del Rice, who was a big league catcher and played parts of 12 seasons with the Cardinals.
"If I couldn’t catch things, I would probably be looked down on a bit in my family," Pettis said, with a smile.
Previously wearing No. 83, Pettis has changed his jersey number to 18 in honor of his grandfather. Rice wore No. 18 while playing for the Cardinals from 1945-54. He was part of the team’s World Series champions of 1946.