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In St. Louis, where the weather was more fitting for San Diego than the Midwest in August. Only a few days earlier the Rams practiced amid a heat index that soared to 108. However, they were greeted Thursday with temperatures that did not climb above the mid-80s for the two-a-day session at their year-round facility. The break in heat prompted unsolicited thank-yous from some players, including quarterback Sam Bradford, who dropped eight pounds during a recent practice in the heat and humidity.
There was a businesslike approach as the Rams prepared Thursday for their exhibition opener against the Colts. One player called it quiet hunger. Much of the Rams' motivation this season can be found in the locker of middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. There, you'll find a photo from last year's season-ending loss at Seattle.
If the Rams had won that game, they would have claimed the NFC West title and hosted a playoff game the following week. Instead, they were forced to watch the postseason from the other side of the glass for a sixth consecutive year.
1. The cavalry has arrived for Steven Jackson. For much of his career, the standout running back from Oregon State seemingly has been without backfield assistance. Last year, for instance, he led the league in touches, ranked second in carries (330) and had the largest discrepancy in rushes between the Nos. 1 and 2 backs on a team, at 296.
However, the recent signings of Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood should allow Jackson an opportunity for breathers. Williams has battled injuries since being drafted fifth overall by Tampa Bay in 2005 -- he has surpassed 125 carries just once in the last five seasons -- so he's not looking to be a workhorse. If the Rams can get him five to 10 carries a game it's a win-win for him and the team.
Norwood is more of a change-of-pace back who can be used on third down and in passing situations. St. Louis will put together a package tailored to his talents. That could mean seeing him not only in the backfield, but also in the slot and on the perimeter. Bottom line: Contributions from Norwood and Williams should result in a fresher Jackson in the fourth quarter and during the stretch run of the season.
2. Bradford can laugh at himself. One of the things that immediately strikes you about Bradford, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, is his calm and poise. Whether he's hounded by pass rushers or surrounded by media, the former Oklahoma standout is unflappable.
However there's another side to Bradford. One that involves "weird" LITTLEstitions. As opposed to SUPERstitions.
For instance, Bradford does not cut his hair during the season. He receives a buzz cut before each season, then doesn't trim it again until the final game is over. The routine goes back to middle school, with no good explanation for why he started doing it.
"The hair thing is the least weird thing that I do," he says. "What's weirder? Back in high school I started a superstition with 'threes' when I eat. We used to go out on Thursday nights for our pre-game meals, and I just had this fascination with threes so I would always eat three breadsticks. Then in college it carried over to pre-game meals at breakfast. Anytime I had fruit or meat or anything that was individually served, I had to have three of them. It's weird. If I wanted more I could justify it by having nine (pieces), because nine is three squared. So if I had blueberries I could have three or nine."
He also won't wear dress socks with his suits on game day, or comb or brush his hair before games. Mind you, these are not superstitions. Just littlestitions.
3. Let's get physical. The signing of veteran free agent linebacker Ben Leber on Thursday marked the continued upgrade of the position. The Rams wanted more athleticism and physicality at the position, and believe Leber (Vikings, 2010), Brady Poppinga (Packers) and Zac Diles (Texans) will make them more formidable against the run. St. Louis allowed an average of 113.1 yards rushing per game last season, 17th in the league.
The Rams have also challenged standout middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to play with more physicality. "The elite (middle) linebackers are the ones that are respected by the offenses because they physically create problems," coach Steve Spagnuolo says. "James is so smart and he's really good at the finesse things that we give him, but I want him to take the next step and sometimes not play perfect. Instead just worry about knocking the guy over in front of you. He was doing that in practice until he injured his pec."
Justin King, cornerback. With Jerome Murphy sidelined for the season with a broken ankle, King could be next up as the third cornerback. Coach Spagnuolo recently told King that he believed the former Penn State product might be having the best camp of any player. That's huge because cornerback play is an area that needs to improve for the Rams to make a serious run at the playoffs.
St. Louis thought it got a steal when it drafted King in the fourth round in 2008, but injuries have prevented him from having a shot at realizing his potential. He missed his rookie year with a bad toe, was slowed by a groin strain the next year, and battled calf, hamstring and shoulder problems last season. He has appeared in just 23 of a possible 48 games, with only seven starts.
"I do like the way he plays," says Spagnuolo. "He's a feisty guy. He's bounced back nicely and needs to continue to build on that."
Mike Sims-Walker, wide receiver. The former Jacksonville Jaguar has had a strong camp despite being asked to learn all three receiver positions. At this point he is the closest thing to a No. 1 receiver on the Rams' roster, and Bradford appears to have developed a nice rapport with him.
If Sims-Walker, who was slowed by an ankle injury last season, can regain his form of 2009 when he had 63 receptions for 869 and seven touchdowns, the Rams' offense could be formidable considering defenses have to respect the running abilities of Jackson.
"Things are going well," he says. "I think it was a test having me learn all the positions in about a week and a half, but I've been in this game four or five years and I'm considered a veteran. I've got to show the young guys that no matter what they throw at you, you've got to handle it. I'm just hoping that whenever we need a play, they call my number. That's what I'm here for, to make plays and be a good teammate."
The receiving corps is an interesting mix. Sims-Walker and Danny Amendola are locks to make the squad, and Bradford appears to have a good feel for Brandon Gibson. However, no other wideout still on the team had more than 30 catches last season. Donnie Avery is really the only deep threat, but he's working his way back after missing last year because of a knee injury and has been slowed by physical ailments throughout his career. Marty Gilyard, a fourth-round pick last year, has ability but has struggled with mental lapses -- such as lining up in the wrong spot Thursday. The team drafted two receivers this year in third-rounder Austin Pettis and fourth-rounder Greg Salas, but wideout historically has been one of the tougher positions for young players to make an immediate impact. That will put a lot of focus on Sims-Walker, who says he just wants to do whatever will help the team win.
The early schedule is brutal, with games against the Eagles, Giants, Ravens, Redskins, Packers, Cowboys and Saints. However if they can keep from going under, the back end is favorable not only because it includes six games against NFC West foes, but also because Pittsburgh is the only opponent that had a winning record last season. In a division whose champion was 7-9 last season, that's a reason for hope even in the most dire circumstances.