Rams hope to change season-opening trend

News-DemocratSeptember 7, 2013 

— Since good starts usually lead to good seasons in the NFL, it should come as no surprise that the St. Louis Rams have struggled on Kickoff Weekend in recent years.

The Rams haven't won their season opener since 2006.

They'll be trying to snap a six-year losing streak on Kickoff Weekend -- the second longest such streak currently in the NFL next to the Cleveland Browns' eight-game skid -- when they play the NFC West-rival Arizona Cardinals at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.

"I like the idea of opening at home," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said when asked if he liked opening against a division opponent. "The only thing better than playoff football in the National Football League is opening day and opening weekend.

"Having an opportunity to open at home is a great opportunity."

The importance of winning on Kickoff Weekend can be proven statistically.

The 47 Super Bowl winners have a 38-8-1 record on Kickoff Weekend in their championship seasons.

Of the 507 teams that won openers since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978, 266 have gone to the playoffs.

Of the 507 teams that lost openers since 1978, 120 went to the playoffs.

"Well, we don't look past it," Fisher said. "We put a great deal of emphasis on it throughout camp because you have to get to a peak and you have to be ready for it. Then you just play them one at a time.

"Obviously, it's important for everybody in the league to get off to a fast start, and that's what we're hopeful for."

The Rams enter the 2013 season with renewed optimism after posting a 7-8-1 record last season.

"We've come a long way," Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. "I really feel like we've made strides. When you play together, you get consistency. Guys just knowing one another a little more on and off the football field, it helps. And, you hope that translates into wins."

The Rams, whose offense ranked 23rd among the NFL's 32 teams last season, added some firepower in the offseason by signing free-agent tight end Jared Cook and selecting wide receiver Tavon Austin with the first of their two first-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft.

The Rams were extremely bland on offense in the preseason, but look for them to feature more of a wide-open passing attack this season.

"What we ran in the preseason is exactly what we're going to run in the game," Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said with a big grin on his face. "Those are the only plays that we've got in the playbook. Tell Arizona that."

The Rams are looking for Bradford to take that next step this season, and the fourth-year quarterback sees that next step as improving his efficiency and that of an entire offense.

"Being more efficient. I think that's something that me and 'Schotty' (offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) have talked a lot about in the offseason and even going through the preseason," Bradford said. "Last year, we really struggled on third down, but a big reason of that is because first and second down weren't very efficient.

"There's times during games where I've got to understand down and distance better and get us into better situations. Take a check down on first down instead of trying to force something down the field."

Daryl Richardson replaces Steven Jackson as the Rams' main ballcarrier.

As Jackson's backup. Richardson rushed for 475 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season.

"I think the only thing going through Daryl's mind right now is to be productive and to help this team win," Fisher said. "That's it. Daryl's a very unselfish player. He loves to play."

Paced by 11 1/2 sacks from Chris Long and 10 1/2 sacks from Robert Quinn, the Rams tied with Denver for the NFL lead in sacks with 52.

The Rams return all four starters and key backups William Hayes and Eugene Sims on their defensive line, but they'll have two rookie starters elsewhere on defense with Alec Ogretree at left-side linebaker T.J. McDonald at strong-side safety.

The Cardinals are projected to have 14 new starters -- eight on offense and six on defense -- this season.

They have a new coach in Bruce Arians, The Associated Press' Coach of the Year last season after serving 12 games as the interim coach for the Indianapolis Colts during Chuck Pagano's absence to undergo treatment for leukemia, and a new quarterback in Carson Palmer, formerly with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders.

"He fits in beautifully," Arians said of Palmer. "He's a gym rat. He can still make all the throws. He's athletic enough to move around in the pocket. He's not one of those scrambling guys, never has been.

"I'm more of a traditional quarterback guy, anyway. Playing against him for all those years in Cincinnati, I knew how tough he was. And you want a tough leader with grit to lead your football team. It took 24 hours and he had this football team in the palms of his hands."

Palmer will be throwing to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who already has amassed 10,413 receiving yards despite just turning 30 on Aug. 31.

"He can do it all," Finnegan said of Fitzgerald. "He has been in the league for a long time. He can go up and get it, he can run good routes, he has sure hands and he is a play maker."

The Cardinals signed former University of Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall during the offseason in the hope to improving the worst rushing attack in the NFL last season.

The Rams lead the overall series against the Cardinals 35-33-2 after sweeping both of last year's meetings. However, the Cardinals have won seven of their last eight games at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said the team is looking to establish home-field advantage right from the start of the season.

"I expect the Dome to be rocking," Laurinaitis said. "I expect the Dome to have a feel to it that hasn't been here the last few years."

Contact reporter Steve Korte at skorte@bnd.com or 239-2522.

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