St. Louis Rams (2-2) at Detroit Lions (0-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, John Lynch
PREDICTION: Lions 28-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: Defense has been at the heart of the Rams' turnaround from 1-15 in 2009, holding each of their first four opponents to no more than 17 points. The Rams have produced key stops whereas the Lions have been lit up by big plays, allowing 14 touchdowns (eight passing). The team whose running back is closer to full strength -- Steven Jackson (groin) of the Rams and Lions rookie Jahvid Best (toe) -- gets a leg up because it should temper the opposing pass rush. QB Shaun Hill pushed the ball to WR Calvin Johnson regularly last week, who is one of four Lions with at least 20 catches this season. QB Matthew Stafford (shoulder) is out for the fourth consecutive game.
FAST FACTS: The Lions have averaged 9.25 penalties per game. ... Rams QB Sam Bradford is attempting to become the third rookie No. 1 overall pick to start and win three consecutive games (Drew Bledsoe, Jeff George).
INSIDE THE CAMPS
St. Louis Rams:
The second half had been a horror show for the Rams for more than three seasons.
Consider these sobering numbers from years past. In 2009, the Rams were outscored 93-25 in the third quarter, 139-60 in the fourth and 232-85 in the second half.
For 2008, it was 57-35 and 134-54 for a total of 191-89 and in 2007 it was 111-56 and 147-40 for a total of 258-96. For the first two games of this season, the Rams were outscored 10-3 in the third quarter and 10-7 in the fourth quarter.
In total, for 50 games from 2007 through the first two games of 2010, the Rams were outscored 271-119 in the third quarter, 430-161 in the fourth quarter and 701-280 in the second half.
However, something changed in Week 3. Whatever the reason, whether it's young players maturing or a team becoming comfortable with the offensive and defensive systems in the second year, a light seemed to come on against the Redskins.
The second half began with a big play by Washington that took the ball to the 8-yard line. The defense stiffened and held the Redskins to a field goal, but it still gave Washington a 16-14 lead after the Rams had led 14-0.
But, a strange thing happened next in what had been an offensive wasteland for the Rams for too long. On their first drive of the third quarter, the Rams drove 74 yards on 12 plays, scoring a touchdown to take a lead they would not relinquish. For the entire 2009 season, the Rams scored just one touchdown in the third quarter.
Last Sunday against Seattle was more of the same, with another third-quarter touchdown and the defense blanking the opponent for the second straight week in the fourth quarter.
In the two games against the Redskins and Seahawks, the Rams won the third quarter 14-3, the fourth quarter 12-0 and the second half 26-3.
Asked for an explanation, coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "It's probably the character of the guys in the locker room. The coaches are doing a good job, although I thought in prior games where people may have thought the right adjustments weren't made, I think they still were. They're going on all the time. I think it's just the character of the players. I would put it on them."
Said cornerback Ron Bartell, "It's the way we practice. We stressed finishing all through training camp; that's what the focus was. And we continue to talk about it and focus on finishing."
Added safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, "Coach throughout training camp was creating an environment of us playing better coming out in the second half. It's something we work on and we continue to communicate about getting stronger during practice and the game takes care of itself. When you work extremely hard from Monday thru Saturday, when it gets to Sunday you're just playing, and that's what we've been able to do."
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who was miked up and featured on an NFL.com video, is heard repeatedly saying, "Fourth quarter, fourth quarter, fourth quarter."
"It's a fourth-quarter battle," he says. "We always have to improve and focus on the fourth quarter."
Still, Laurinaitis and other players understand and repeat Spagnuolo's mantra that what happened last Sunday, win or lose, is over. What's important is what happens next Sunday.
Said Laurinaitis, "How we've done in the last four games has really no correlation to how we do in these next four or on Sunday. That message has been communicated from the top down and guys took a hold of it."
The Lions could not stop John Kuhn, a converted fullback, with the game on the line last Sunday in Green Bay. Before that, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson gashed them for 160 yards rushing. The Eagles' LeSean McCoy ran for 120. And in Week 1, the Bears' Matt Forte amassed 201 total yards.
Next is St. Louis and two-time Pro Bowl back Steven Jackson. All he did last year against the Lions was rumble for 149 yards, helping the Rams to a 17-10 win.
"Last year we played pretty evenly except for Steven Jackson," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "Steven Jackson took the game over, particularly at the end. He was the difference-maker last year."
The plan is very simple: contain Jackson and make rookie quarterback Sam Bradford beat them. But the Lions don't exactly discourage the run. They are 26th in the league, allowing 134.5 per game.
"Steven Jackson is going to stress all 11 players on defense; he's that kind of guy," Schwartz said. "He can get on the edge, and the corners need to tackle him. He's inside with the safeties and linebackers and defensive linemen, too. It's going to take all 11."
Still, a lot of the Lions' problems against the run start with the inconsistent play of the linebackers. Starting middle linebacker DeAndre Levy has played one game due to groin and ankle injuries. He's not likely to play again until after the bye week Oct. 24. Zack Follett, a first-year starter, missed one week with a concussion and has been inconsistent. Landon Johnson spent all training camp working at outside linebacker, but he's been pressed into duty in the middle.
The only constant has been 32-year-old Julian Peterson, though he's being asked to rush the quarterback less and play more in coverage, something he's not done much in his career.
"I thought they played OK last week; good enough to win," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. "But we've had some issues the last couple of days. We usually have a half-hour walk-through (practice), and I jacked that up to 45 minutes. The next one will be at 5 a.m. if we don't start understanding exactly what we have to do."
When asked to elaborate, he said, "Are there reasons for the mistakes? Yeah. Some guys don't know the schemes yet because they just got here a couple of months ago. And we've got injury problems. But like I said, they don't ask about injuries after games. They only want to know if you've won or lost."
Nothing good can happen for the Lions this week if they don't contain Jackson.
St. Louis Rams:
- DT Clifton Ryan did not practice Thursday, but he attended practice and said he will practice Friday. That will be his first practice since being hospitalized with serious migraines three weeks ago. He said he saw numerous doctors, and he now believes the problem is manageable. He said, "I don't plan to miss any more time" and added he hopes to play Sunday, but no later than the following week.
- LT Rodger Saffold, who was banged in the shin Wednesday, practiced with his leg heavily padded Thursday and looked fine.
- RB Steven Jackson did significant work in practice Thursday, more than the day before. He is still having acupuncture treatments but doesn't need to use a muscle stimulation machine any longer.
- S Darian Stewart, who was somewhat limited in practice Wednesday as he recovers from a hamstring injury, did more work Thursday than the day before.
- LB Chris Chamberlain (fractured toe), who did some limited work in practice Wednesday, did not practice at all Thursday because the injury was bothering him.
- CB Justin King aggravated a calf injury that has been bothering him and was very limited in practice Thursday.
- DT Gary Gibson, who did not practice Wednesday because of a shoulder injury, felt better Thursday and did some limited work in practice.
- P Donnie Jones isn't doing punting in practice because of a calf injury on his kicking leg.
- TE Tony Scheffler (concussion) has not practiced all week. His status for Sunday is expected to be determined Friday. "He felt good on Monday, but on Tuesday started to get dizzy and headaches and it's stayed the same," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "He doesn't have real severe symptoms, but exercising tends to make those worse, so we just shut him down for a couple of days."
- TE Will Heller would be the second tight end alongside Brandon Pettigrew if Tony Scheffler can't play.
- QB Matthew Stafford (shoulder) threw "a couple of passes" Thursday and said he felt "OK." He isn't practicing and is doubtful that he would return before the bye week (Oct. 24). "I wish there was more news, but there's not," he said. "I haven't targeted any (comeback date) or anything like that. I just want to be 100 percent or as close as I can get to 100 percent and be healthy enough to go out and play."
- SS C.C. Brown (quadriceps) was back at practice Thursday after missing Wednesday.
- CB Alphonso Smith will replace Jonathan Wade in the starting lineup Sunday. Wade will be the nickel back.
- WR Tim Toone, the final pick in the 2010 draft, was placed on the practice squad injured list Thursday. He broke his tibia in practice Thursday. WR Alric Arnett, an undrafted rookie released by the Colts, was added to the practice squad.