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Rams determined to be dominant in 2015


The Sports Xchange

ST. LOUIS — Receiving a celebratory postgame kiss from his wife while standing about a 10-yard out route from the victorious locker room on Sunday, St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead was wearing a checkered shirt and a Cheshire smile, but most noticeable was the chip on his shoulder.

With a castoff quarterback, no-name running back and offensive line armed with bulletin board material, the Rams knocked off the Seattle Seahawks 34-31 in overtime and might have filled a few empty seats on their 2015 bandwagon.

“We have guys who believe they can play,” said quarterback Nick Foles, who completed 18 of 27 passes for 297 yards and a 37-yard touchdown to tight end Lance Kendricks with 53 seconds left in regulation to win his first start since the Philadelphia Eagles dealt him to the Rams.

It was not beating the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome that had Snead and his charges jazzed. This is the third time in four seasons the Seahawks flew home from St. Louis with a loss. The Rams won with a subpar effort in many ways: three fumbles lost, including two by Foles, and too many open-field missed tackles in the secondary to tabulate in a fast-moving game.

For Snead and coach Jeff Fisher, Sunday represents a step forward because of what the Rams could become, even as soon as this season. Already, the Rams have a championship defense. A capable offense means St. Louis becomes a playoff contender, perhaps more.

Foles led three scoring drives, all coming after a Rams miscue. It’s the toughness and leadership Snead saw when he agreed to deal quarterback Sam Bradford to the Eagles for Foles.

When 2013 first-round pick Tavon Austin, who didn’t have a touchdown reception last season, is playing like a star — the wide receiver scored on a 16-yard run and 75-yard punt return — and Foles is feathering passes between All-Pro cover men Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, the Rams are a threat, even if everybody doesn’t see it that way.

“The first game is always like that in the NFL,” Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “The first game is where teams come out and they do things they haven’t done because you haven’t studied their plays. Then you get used to it, you come back and understand what the offenses are doing.”

Rams running back Bennie Cunningham, making his third start in his third season, had 20 touches — his previous career high was 11 — including the longest play of the game, a 42-yard catch in the fourth quarter. Cunningham got the ball with Tre Mason nursing a hamstring injury and 2015 first-rounder Todd Gurley inactive.

“I feel like it was beneficial the way I prepared myself, just to be ready for the opportunity,” Cunningham said Sunday.

He is not big at 5-foot-9, 217 pounds, or fast — he ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at 209 pounds coming out of Middle Tennessee — but Cunningham is a fighter, the kind of personality the Rams want in their locker room.

Snead brought him on board as an undrafted free agent, and Cunningham developed into a utility back because of his natural hands, low center of gravity and powerful legs.

“I’ll summarize it, capitalize it, put quotations around it in capital letters: Football player,” Snead said. “Double thumbs up.”

With Gurley lurking — he could return by the end of the month after being limited in practice last week, but he is still being watched cautiously in recovery from ACL surgery performed in November 2014 — and Mason day-to-day, Cunningham is a long shot to see 20 touches again this season. It is a fact that gives the Rams cause for optimism, depth at a position where they struck out multiple times since Steven Jackson celebrated scores in these parts.

The passing game worked when the protection worked, and credit is due a St. Louis front five that not many respected entering Sunday. One publication ranked the Rams’ offensive line 32nd in the NFL — dead last — with numerous question marks.

“Most definitely motivation — that lights a fire,” rookie guard Jamon Brown said. “We used that as a chip on our shoulder, but we won’t be content with the win.”

The last time the Rams were Super Bowl-worthy, defensive coordinator Lovie Smith was trying to bring just enough defense to the table to prop up Mike Martz’s offense that was capable of slapping 40 on almost anybody.

Defense is the calling card, this Rams team understands, and the six sacks of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson are the latest testament to what kind of wrecking crew St. Louis could be.

“This is as athletic a group as we are going to face,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They had an edge on us early.”

The Rams can peek ahead to see the schedule won’t lighten much. The Washington Redskins lost a competitive game, 17-10, to the Miami Dolphins in which the potential tying score was turned away with a goal-line interception. The Pittsburgh Steelers come to St. Louis in Week 3 before the Rams make trips to Arizona and Green Bay.

New challenges for the Rams, who expect questions about whether they are capable of building on one positive and giving their testy fans a reason to rally behind this team even if the perception is the owner wants to pick up for Los Angeles at the earliest opportunity.

“We always said the best way to turn that around is to win,” Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “Winning cures everything.”

–Week 1 was a winner for the little guys.

Unless you were charting Seattle Seahawks preseason games, the name Tyler Lockett might have slipped through your consciousness. If you are nearsighted, there is an excellent chance the 5-foot-8 rookie wide receiver and return specialist could go unnoticed behind a wall of 300-pound blockers or a sturdy four-shelf bookshelf.

He stood out again Sunday, though, returning the first punt he fielded in an NFL regular-season game for a 57-yard touchdown and contributing as a receiver, including an 8-yard catch in overtime.

News to some, familiar flash to the Seahawks.

Lockett scored two return touchdowns in preseason — 103-yard kickoff, 67-yard punt — and caught a 63-yarder while averaging 21.5 yards on six receptions.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll saw it last year, then traded up in agreement with general manager John Schneider to draft Lockett in the third round. No player made Carroll smile more in a three-day rookie minicamp than Lockett, who was an All-America receiver while setting multiple school records at Kansas State.

“He loves doing it, and it’s part of his makeup,” Carroll said. “You need that first. That’s a very, very challenging job, and it just doesn’t work out for guys who don’t have the right attitude. He’s got that.”

Carroll said he wanted the special teams to be exciting. They will be that and then some this season.

“It’s all about instincts and relying on your instincts,” Lockett said Sunday following the loss to the Rams. “For me, the biggest thing is not to think too much. I try to catch it and go play.”

Lockett said the punt unit in particular enters a game thinking “we always have the No. 1 unit out there, and they block their butts off.”

Schneider was out to improve a poor return game that ranked 28th in 2013 and 30th in 2014 on the heels of an admittedly failed try two years ago with Percy Harvin, whose hip issues kept him out all but one regular-season game. Harvin returned a kickoff for a touchdown to open the second half of the Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos, but he had no impact in the regular season.

In April, Lockett was the 72nd overall pick — three spots earlier than Seattle drafted quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012 — and 10th wide receiver selected.

He wasn’t the only 5-8 game-breaker to stand tall this week.

The hubbub surrounding Tom Brady’s return to the field in Foxborough on Thursday night muted the effort by Patriots running back Dion Lewis, who was out of football last season, working out in Albany with his phone volume at the maximum. It didn’t ring.

In the Patriots’ opener, the former Pitt running back and 149th overall pick in 2011 dialed up 120 total yards. He had 192 career yards entering the game. In the past two years, Lewis had zero carries.

“Had we needed a running back, we would have gone to him,” coach Bill Belichick said Sunday on a conference call. “It just never came up really.”

Lewis still has a role this week when the Patriots get LeGarrette Blount back from a one-game suspension.

Quarterback Tom Brady predicted it won’t take long for Lewis to develop a cult following in New England, similar to Danny Woodhead, a small back and role player who was beloved for his 14 touchdowns in 45 games from 2010-12.

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