ST. LOUIS — Benny Cunningham knew all about Jeff Fisher.
Cunningham grew up in Nashville and played his college football at Middle Tennessee State in nearby Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of his hometown.
He saw Fisher’s Titans run the ball time and time again. He grew up watching Eddie George run it, then guys like Chris Brown, Travis Henry and LenDale White before Chris Johnson came to town.
So here was Cunningham, minutes after the NFL draft ended in late April, on the phone with the former Titans coach who was offering an opportunity to come to St. Louis and compete for a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.
“He made me feel welcome,” Cunningham said. “Once I talked to him and knew how much he wanted me to be a St. Louis Ram, I just felt like this was the place for me.”
San Francisco was interested. So were the New York Giants.
But Cunningham just knew.
“It really came down to St. Louis and the New York Giants, but after talking to Coach Fisher, I just felt like this would be my home,” he said.
On Sunday, the rookie free agent running back showed that decision was a good one. Pressed into action following an injury to rookie starter Zac Stacy, Cunningham rushed for 109 yards on 13 carries and scored his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter to help secure the Rams’ 42-21 win over the Bears at Edward Jones Dome.
“It felt great to contribute to the offense,” Cunningham said. “You always want to have a chip on your shoulder and prepare like a starter. So me getting the opportunity and actually being productive, hopefully it puts some faith in the offensive line and the offensive guys that I can help out.”
The Rams, who improved to 5-6 with their second straight victory, are a different team now than they were at the beginning of the season.
After three straight losses, against Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco, the Rams found an identity offensively as a team that wants to line up and run the ball at opponents with its strong offensive line and a compact 5-8, 224-pound bowling ball in Stacy.
Cunningham, similar in stature to Stacy at 5-10 and 217 pounds, had established himself in recent weeks as the No. 2 option behind the rookie revelation Stacy with Daryl Richardson sidelined by a foot injury and Isaiah Pead unable to earn carries.
“They are both big, low center-of-gravity, physical guys who run downhill,” Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said of the team’s rookie running back tandem. “It’s kind of pick your poison when you’re running Stacy and Cunningham.”
Cunningham rushed for 72 yards on seven carries in the blowout win at Indianapolis two weeks ago, including a 56-yard run, before the bye week. That breakout performance would serve sign of things to come before Cunningham’s big day on Sunday.
“He’s a great back,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “He really is. He’s a great back and he works hard. I was excited to see him get an opportunity and make the most of it.”
With Stacy’s status going forward uncertain — the Rams were checking out the rookie for a possible concussion — Cunningham could get many more opportunities to show what he’s capable of.
The Rams are still in the hunt for a playoff berth, as unlikely as that sounds, as they go on the road the next two weeks against the 49ers (6-4) and Cardinals (6-4). St. Louis is going to keep running the ball whether it’s Stacy, Cunningham or Richardson carrying it.
Cunningham showed on Sunday he was capable of handling the load.
The Rams led 27-21 with 7:15 remaining in the fourth quarter Sunday after just giving up a short touchdown run by Michael Bush that opened the door for a potential Bears comeback.
St. Louis put the game in the hands of Cunningham and it’s emerging offensive line. The rookie responded with six carries for 61 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown run on third down — his first career score — and then Clemens hit Pead on a 2-point conversion pass to put the Rams ahead by 14 points with 3:05 remaining.
Many of the Bears fans among the 66,024 in attendance then started heading for the exits. The chants of “Let’s go Bears” that rang out through the Dome earlier that afternoon were muted.
“I’m extremely proud of him,” Rams right guard Rodger Saffold said. “He works as if he’s going to play every week and all of our backs do. You can’t ask for a better group of guys. I think there were a lot of questions when Jack (Steven Jackson) left. I think we’re starting to see the answers.”
Fisher and Rams general manager Les Snead had a plan in place following Jackson’s departure to Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason. They drafted Stacy in the fifth round and then signed Cunningham as a free agent a couple hours later, adding to the roster that already included returners Richardson and Pead.
Cunningham’s decision back in April seems to be working out now.
“Yes, most definitely,” Cunningham said. “I’m trying to make the most of it with every opportunity.”
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.