The only additions in the offseason were defensive tackle Fred Robbins and linebacker Na'il Diggs. While they have helped with their experience, most important was being in the second year of the defensive system, and having numerous young players improve.
Said Spagnuolo, "I do think it has a lot to do with being comfortable in the scheme, because defense is reacting and playing, and when you're not thinking, you play better. I know we keep saying this. But the guys who have been here, that have been in the system, they've all gotten better. Everybody feels comfortable. That's what defense is a lot about: learning where each other is going to be, trusting that they're going to be there and being confident in what you're doing."
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis agreed, saying, "We have a lot of guys back so you know how certain people will fit in certain things and you have a better sense of coming together and really understanding each other and what we want to check on certain things. That's all it is."
Explaining what can happen, Laurinaitis said, "Even communication with safeties -- I joke about it -- but if the MIKE 'backer sees one thing and the safety sees another thing on where to check on a certain coverage or something, you will have two groups of players playing different coverages. That's a problem. I don't think it's happened a whole lot this year and I think it's because guys are that much more detailed, and when something happens, you are not waiting for the safeties to make a check, you know what check they are going to make so you don't even have to hear them say it."
This week, the Rams will face the 49ers and running back Frank Gore with a defense ranked 10th in the league and eighth against the run
Spagnuolo said playing good run defense isn't anything fancy. He said, "It just goes back to basic run-game defense. Stay in your gap -- or win your gap -- and tackle the ball carrier. That's about what it comes down to. It's still about doing the same things out here. But our guys take a lot of pride in it, and they know we've got a good challenge with Frank Gore and this particular offense."
-- It was the fourth game of the 1999 season. The Rams were off to a 3-0 start after convincing wins over Baltimore (27-10), Atlanta (35-7) and Cincinnati (38-10).
Still, preparing to play the rival 49ers in Week 4, the Rams believed they had to beat San Francisco to validate what they were doing. And beat them they did, rolling to a 42-20 victory and snapping San Francisco's 17-game winning streak in the series.
The Rams would lose only three times all season, and they won the Super Bowl.
Eleven years later, the Rams aren't undefeated. However, in a league where every division is up for grabs, the Rams have a share of first place with Seattle, and they face San Francisco this week with an opportunity to show they can win on the road and push the 2-6 49ers further back.
The Rams are winless away from home this season and have lost six straight on the road dating back to last season. They have also lost four straight games to San Francisco and eight of the last 10 in the series.
Said guard Jacob Bell, matter-of-factly, "This is our biggest game of the year. This is probably the biggest game I've been a part of since I've been here."
This is the latest the Rams have been in first place in a season since 2003, when they last won the NFC West with a 12-4 record.
"It was our goal to win the NFC West, just like Arizona, just like San Francisco did, just like Seattle did," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "We are all at the midway point saying it's there if we can hunker down and get this second half taken care of. We have to keep doing the same things we have been doing, improve on the things we've made mistakes on and just keep getting better."
The 49ers had a nightmarish beginning to their season, losing in Seattle, Kansas City and Atlanta and at home to New Orleans and Philadelphia. However, they have won two of their last three games, and with a win could move to within one game of the Rams. Of their final eight games, San Francisco has five division games, including playing each division rival at home.
It's an understatement to say the Rams know what is at stake. Said wide receiver Danny Amendola, "We are definitely hungry. We are coming off the bye week and we have momentum from last game and everyone is getting their nicks taken care of."
Said coach Steve Spagnuolo, "I think everybody was ready to roll. I think everybody ... you get to a certain point when you leave. You get in this grind and then you're away from it for even three or four days, I think your body wants it back in some ways. They probably wouldn't say that, but I think we were all happy to be back together."
The message from Spagnuolo and the veterans is being heard by the younger players.
Said rookie tackle Rodger Saffold when asked about being at the top of the division, "We don't want to get too excited about it at midseason. You want to be excited about it at the end of the season. If you had that opportunity in late December, I'm telling you, I'd be doing back flips up in here."
SERIES HISTORY: 121st regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 60-58-2. The 49ers have won four consecutive games in the series, eight of the last 10 and four of the last five in San Francisco. The last two games in San Francisco have been won by the 49ers by a combined score of 70-16 (35-0 in 2009; 35-16 in 2008).
-- It turns out the injury suffered by receiver Danario Alexander in practice Oct. 29 wasn't a new one to his left knee. The injury was described as a torn meniscus, but sources close to Alexander said there was a meniscus flap in his knee that was known to be there. He subsequently had surgery to trim the flap, something that had been considered previously.
The question now is how cautious the Rams will be with Alexander. While the recent procedure was relatively minor, it still is the fifth one on his left knee in three years, and the second since February.
Alexander has said he hopes to play in a few weeks, but when asked about Alexander on Monday, Spagnuolo said, "He's doing well. He was outside here a little bit today, but (we're) nowhere close to getting him out here practicing."
-- Linebacker Bryan Kehl started against Carolina on the weak side and has supplanted Larry Grant in that role. Grant opened training camp as the starter, but the athletic Kehl has made his presence felt since being claimed off waivers from the Giants on Sept. 15.
While Kehl has said he was surprised to be released by the Giants, he is also grateful it happened because it has ended up resulting in more playing time.
"I didn't really like my situation there," Kehl said. "I had been talking to my agent since last year about trying to get out of there. I felt like whenever they put me out there, I made plays. I think everybody feels that way, but I backed it up statistically.
"I liked the organization. I loved being there; the facilities are awesome. But you want to get on the field. So when I got waived, I wasn't mad. I got all sorts of calls from people: 'Oh, it's OK; keep your head up.' And I laughed. I said, 'My head's up. ... I'm happy.'"
Kehl made an immediate impact on special teams and also in the nickel defense. He eventually worked his way up to the starting job.
Said middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, "Bryan's a smart football player. He's very instinctive, and he's got some wheels. I think him being in New York and being familiar with a lot of the systems that we do, he came over and adjusted smoothly."
-- Coach Steve Spagnuolo said he spent some time during the team's recent bye weekend riding around St. Louis' Forest Park on a moped.
Said Spagnuolo, "Had sunglasses on, so I stayed low. I didn't get off too much, but I thought it was beautiful here."
Asked if he was recognized, Spagnuolo laughed and said, "I didn't stop. Never stopped. Nobody was waving."
The easiest question to answer came when he was asked if his wife Maria went with him.
"She did," Spagnuolo said. "I don't go anywhere without Maria."
BY THE NUMBERS: 2,662-2,607 -- In the previous 120 games in the series between the Rams and 49ers, that's how close the point totals are, with the 49ers leading.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's simple; he plays on a bad team. Any player who plays on a bad team has trouble getting the same attention as players who play on winning teams. It happened for years. Players like Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders and even at the time Walter Payton didn't get the recognition they deserved because when you play on teams that are 3-13, 4-12, you don't get the ink." -- Former Rams RB Eric Dickerson, on why RB Steven Jackson is somewhat unnoticed.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
-- LT Rodger Saffold was held out of practice Thursday because of a sore left shoulder, but the rookie said afterward he would definitely play Sunday against San Francisco. Saffold said he woke up and felt pain, and the decision to keep him out practice was a precaution.
-- OT Renardo Foster worked at left tackle in practice Thursday with Rodger Saffold sidelined by a sore shoulder. Foster played right tackle in the Week 8 game against Carolina with Jason Smith out because of a concussion.
-- LB Na'il Diggs banged into S Craig Dahl on a pass play during Thursday's practice and left the field with an injury to his right shin. Diggs was scheduled for X-rays, but the injury is not expected to affect his playing status Sunday against the 49ers.
-- TE Fendi Onobun, who first experienced back spasms on Oct. 27 and hadn't practiced since, returned to practice Thursday. However, with tight ends Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and Billy Bajema healthy, Onobun is expected to be inactive for Sunday's game against San Francisco.
-- LB Chris Chamberlain could see more playing time in the base defense on the weak side now that he is almost totally recovered from a broken toe that he suffered in the season opener against Arizona. Chamberlain was playing as the nickel linebacker when he was injured.
GAME PLAN: Very little is expected to change in the way the Rams approach their plan. They will seek to run with Steven Jackson, which can be difficult against the 49ers. San Francisco allows just 3.6 yards per rush and has given up just 14 runs of 10 or more yards. In addition, they have allowed four or more yards on running plays on just 34.5 percent of the attempts, the fourth-best in the league. The Rams likely will use their passing game as an extension of the running game.
Defensively, their plan starts with RB Frank Gore, who has 691 rushing yards after eight games, and trying to limit the potential damage that TE Vernon Davis can do. The Rams have only two takeaways in their three road games, and both came in Oakland.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams DTs Fred Robbins and Gary Gibson and MLB James Laurinaitis vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore. The Rams rank eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and they have limited the big plays against them. That will be a key in this matchup.
-- Rams DE Chris Long vs. 49ers rookie RT Anthony Davis. The 49ers have allowed just 14 sacks and rank 11th in the league in sacks allowed per pass play. Long has been showing steady improvement, and he will try to take advantage of his matchup against a rookie tackle.
INJURY IMPACT: The walking wounded have started returning, although there are still some issues in the secondary. CB Ron Bartell and S James Butler are still hampered, but the backups have been solid when called upon.