TSX: Rams Notebook

Steve Spagnuolo (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The benching of cornerback Bradley Fletcher on Sunday against San Francisco remains something of a mystery.

Kevin Dockery started in Fletcher's place against the 49ers and was burned early on two big pass plays. Fletcher then took his place in the base defense.

As for the benching, references were made to Fletcher having some plays he'd like back in previous game and to Dockery having played well against Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith on Oct. 31. There were also reports coaches weren't pleased with some sloppy practice habits Fletcher had developed.

While Fletcher battled back from a serious knee injury suffered early last season when he was a rookie, health was not said to be a factor. However, defensive coordinator Ken Flajole talked about Fletcher's health Thursday.

"I think part of it is just there's a little bit of a learning curve for Fletch," Flajole said. "I think the one thing that happens, anytime you've had major knee surgery like he has, people that seem to know that thing feel like that's a two-year injury. He had dramatic knee surgery, so part of it is getting his knee back into shape. I think a little bit of it will be a health issue as much as anything else, him just getting back to where that knee is back to a hundred percent. I'm not sure that he's hitting on all eight cylinders right now."

Asked if Fletcher might have hit a plateau, Flajole said, "It could happen. The thing we've all got to remember is he's a (rookie) when it comes to playing. He got hurt early in the year last year, so he missed a good portion of the season. Part of the learning curve ... he didn't get all the repetitions and that natural learning progression that you get if you had played all 16 games.

"So now he's getting it, and then all the sudden now your body has got to get used to playing a 16-game schedule. So at some point in time, your body kind of reacts a little bit and says, 'Well, we've got a few more to go, so hang in there.' It's not like the college kids that come out that first year. They get to about game 11 or 12 and all of the sudden they think they'd be playing in a bowl game and they've got a good stretch of games ahead of them."

The Rams allowed numerous big pass plays Sunday, and this week they face a Falcons' offense spearheaded by wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Asked what went wrong, Flajole acknowledged there were a number of issues. He said, "And I put part of it on myself. I second-guessed myself a little bit. Should I have pressured on one of those downs when they were (moving toward) their go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter? So I can put a little bit on me as well. There's things maybe I could have done better.

"When it comes down to it, either I've got to execute better and when we make a call, they've got to execute the call better. But between us and them and all of us, we're going to get it right.

"We were certainly disappointed. We were disappointed in what happened and transpired in the game and we were disappointed about how the game ended. We certainly felt from our standpoint that we could have taken the game under control, and we didn't do it. Our guys understand that. They've got a lot of pride, and I expect them to rebound this week."

-- Perhaps the most unexpected development in the improving Rams' defense this season has been the pass rush. When defensive end Leonard Little was not re-signed, Chris Long was moved to left end. James Hall was re-signed and remained the starter at right end.

The Rams also drafted George Selvie and Eugene Sims, hoping one would emerge as a rotational pass rusher. Selvie showed some promise, but he has gotten less time because Hall and Long have played so well, although he has been used inside in passing situations.

Suddenly, the Rams have 28 sacks, tied for the most in the NFL, and the 198 lost yards is the most of any team. For the entire 2009 season, the Rams had 25 sacks for 149 yards.

Hall (7.5 sacks) and Long (5.5) have become something of a mutual admiration society. And they have also been helped by the push inside created by defensive tackles Fred Robbins and Gary Gibson, as well as end C.J. Ah You, who also often plays tackle against the pass.

"It all has to work together in a combined effort," Hall said.

Said Long of Hall, "James has always been a good player, a guy who I think people should know more about. So much in this league is based on hype and who's who. He's excelled even on teams ... that haven't done so well.

"I've probably learned more from James than anybody since I've been in the league. He's just a professional. You learn how to have fun playing the game and at the same time work extremely hard, how to study film, study your opponent, learn to play within yourself. I guess the biggest thing he taught me to do is play to your strengths and do the things you do well. Because that's what he does, and it's served him pretty well."

As for Long, Hall says simply, "The sky's the limit for him."

Long had huge expectations when he arrived in St. Louis as the second overall choice in the 2008 draft and had to adjust to playing the 4-3 defense after playing in the 3-4 in college.

His second season brought coach Steve Spagnuolo's new defense. This year, Long has settled in with the defense and has been kept exclusively on the left side.

Said Long, "It's been nice just to be able to try to focus and really hone in on what I'm doing. I feel like there's a lot of things I can do over there that can help this team."

His Hall-of-Fame father Howie Long said left end is the perfect spot for him. "It's a natural position for him," Howie Long said. "His power arm is his right arm. And then what comes is getting used to playing all the blocking combinations out of a right-handed stance on the left side of the defense. And the quicker you become kind of fluent at playing the blocking combinations, the faster you start to play, the more the game starts to slow down."

"We've always had great promise for Chris," defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. "I'm glad he's starting to get some production from a stats standpoint because he deserves it. He works hard."

Hall knew the pass rushers had to step up after the departure of Little.

"It was just something we knew we had to have," Hall said. "Regardless of whether Leonard was here or not, that was something we had to get, pressure. It's something we continue to work on every day."

Hall also noted that staying in one spot has helped him and Long. Last season, Long was at left end on running downs and right end against the pass. Hall would move inside from right end in passing situations.

Hall is one of the team's hardest workers, arriving every day at 6 am. His work ethic is noticed by the younger players.

Said Sims, "He's a workhorse. He's the first one here and the last one to leave. It's very valuable, having somebody like James Hall to watch. He's a good leader, outspoken, a very good guy. I couldn't ask for anything better."

Hall watches a lot of tape and studies his opponents for hours. He said, "Just working my technique during the course of the week, working my craft, and coming up with game plans for guys and then trying to go out and execute it."

He and Long will be trying to execute it this week against an Atlanta offense that has allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to be sacked only 15 times. Only six teams have allowed fewer sacks this season.

SERIES HISTORY: 75th regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 47-25-2. These teams played twice a year from 1967 to 2001 until divisional realignment, but have played just four regular-season games since then. The Falcons have won two of the last three games in the series, but the Rams have won five straight games in St. Louis. Atlanta's last win in St. Louis was in 1998.

NOTES, QUOTES

-- Several defensive players were unaware that the team was tied for first in the league in sacks and led in sack yardage.

"We're first in sacks?" cornerback Ron Bartell said. "Wow."

Said linebacker James Laurinaitis, "I didn't know that. I wish it translated to a few more Ws. Coach Mac (special teams coach Tom McMahon) always says, 'Correct in season. Judge after the season. None of that really matters now.'"

-- In the wake of what most believe was a bad pass interference call in Sunday's overtime loss to San Francisco, coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "We're never going to use officiating as an excuse. We're not going to do that."

While acknowledging the play would be sent to the league office, Spagnuolo wouldn't say much more. "I'm not going to go there. I have my own thoughts, but the play was called a DPI (defensive pass interference) and that's what we've got to live with."

Asked about whether he believed the pass was uncatchable, Spagnuolo would only say, "When the ball is uncatchable, there should be no pass interference. Now that's a judgment call, and the officials have to judge that and make that call. They didn't judge it that way."

Mike Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating who now works for Fox Sports, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Was the actual pass catchable? It's clearly thrown behind him (49ers tight end Delanie Walker). I think he had no shot of getting the ball."

-- From what former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner has seen of Sam Bradford, he's "really impressed." Said Warner, "There are not a lot of weapons around him, especially with a couple of receivers going down. He's got great command. He's got great poise. Very accurate. Can throw the long ball. Can throw the short stuff. Makes great decisions.

"A lot has been put on his shoulders in the early stages, and I think he's responded extremely well. When guys respond to that early adversity and play well in spite of everything going on, it usually bodes well for them to have a really strong career in the NFL. And I don't see any signs that Sam is not going to have a very, very successful career. The more pieces that they get around him, the better he's going to get. It's going to be fun to watch him over the next 10 to 15 years."

-- RT Jason Smith missed just one game because of a concussion suffered in practice Oct. 29, and played without incident in Sunday's loss to the 49ers. That was a far cry from the concussion he suffered on Nov. 22 last season that resulted in him missing the final six games of the season.

"I'm feeling great," Smith said prior to the game against the 49ers. "I'm glad to be cleared and be out there with the team."

Asked about the difference in concussions, Smith said, "They both started out about the same but a concussion is a concussion. You get the same kind of feeling, but this one here the Lord allowed to clear up."

-- In the drive for the tying field goal Sunday, TE Daniel Fells dropped a pass at around the 5-yard line that might have resulted in a go-ahead touchdown with 29 seconds remaining in regulation.

Said Fells, "I've got to come up with that catch. I take everything personal. I go out there and I bust my butt every single down, every single play, and I expect to make those plays so I can help my team win."

-- QB Sam Bradford hasn't shaved in a while and has a scraggly beard. Asked about it, Bradford said it was part of a "no-shave November" for some of the players.

Kicker Josh Brown has grown a beard and punter Donnie Jones is sporting a Fu Manchu mustache.

"His facial hair is awesome," deadpanned linebacker James Laurinaitis of Jones. "What a beautiful look."

BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Combined points the Rams have lost by in four of their five losses. But coach Steve Spagnuolo said the team won't dwell on Sunday's three-point loss in overtime. "It's just what you do in this league," Spagnuolo said. "We're going to always operate this way. We don't get too high when we win, we don't get too low when we lose. If you do, you're done. You just can't do it."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't believe 'The Flash' would've got to that one." -- S Oshiomogho Atogwe on a controversial pass interference call in Sunday's loss to the 49ers. Atogwe collects action heroes, and DC Comics character The Flash has "super speed."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER NOTES

-- LT Rodger Saffold participated fully in practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday by an ankle injury suffered Sunday against San Francisco. Saffold had extensive treatment over the last few days. He said, "I want to play. So I really took rehab kind of to the next level. I was here all day for a few days. With the trainers' help, and especially doing what I needed to do at home, it's gotten me to where I am right now."

-- WR Danario Alexander was listed as limited on the injury report for the second straight day, but Alexander got practice time with the first unit. "I think he's doing a pretty good job right now," coach Steve Spagnuolo said.

-- DT Fred Robbins was added to the injury report Thursday with a back injury. Coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "It's high in his back. He pulled something yesterday. It was a little bit sore this morning, so he got a limited number of reps."

-- S James Butler, a limited participant in practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury, fully participated Thursday.

-- FB/LB Brit Miller, who suffered a concussion against San Francisco Sunday, was limited Wednesday and was cleared Thursday for full participation in practice.

GAME PLAN: The Rams will be challenged against a balanced Falcons offense that presents numerous challenges to a defense. Thirteen of the Rams' 15 takeaways have come in their five home games, but Atlanta has just 10 turnovers all season. CB Ron Bartell said this will be a challenge similar to when the Rams hosted San Diego. "As tough as they are, we don't want to sell ourselves short. We feel we're one of the best defenses in the league."

On offense, the Rams will look to control the ball and hope to hit some plays against a pass defense that has allowed 245.3 yards per game and a 67.3 percent completion rate. "We have to be careful in the way we attack them," said quarterback Sam Bradford. "I understand we don't have to force things."

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams DEs James Hall and Chris Long vs. Falcons OTs Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo: Hall and Long have combined for 13 sacks, and their quickness could present some problems for Baker and Clabo. However, to get into passing situations, the Rams will have to stop the running of Michael Turner.

-- Rams CBs Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher and Kevin Dockery vs. Falcons WR Roddy White: White is averaging around eight receptions and 104 yards per game, so the corners will be challenged. It's hard to imagine the defensive coaches putting Dockery on the edge, a move that backfired against the 49ers.

INJURY IMPACT: The possible return of WR Danario Alexander could bring a big-play potential back to the passing game. Alexander likely won't be on the field for a lot of plays if he's active, but he would be someone Atlanta's secondary would have to respect. The Falcons have allowed 16 touchdown passes and 7.73 yards per pass attempt.

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