ST. LOUIS — The potential return of defensive end Chris Long could be just what the Rams need to finish out a favorable schedule for their last five games.
A foot injury coach Jeff Fisher has described as "unique" kept Long out for 10 games, including a 19-17 win at a still-struggling Tampa Bay in Week 2. But that would be the end of weak opponents for St. Louis, thanks to a gauntlet that proved to be even tougher than advertised.
A frustrating home loss to Dallas started a streak of nine straight games against seven teams in position for the playoffs, plust two against a San Francisco team that would be left out only because of a tiebreaker if the season ended today. Excluding games against each other and the Rams, those eight teams have posted an impressive 36-8 record, with only Kansas City losing more than one.
Oddly enough, the Chiefs were the only team to cruise to victory against St. Louis, when a slew of injuries and inability to stop the Kansas City pass rush and running game turned a 10-7 halftime deficit into a 34-7 rout. The Rams earned three wins against teams that played in conference title games a year ago, and they were leading or within a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the other five losses.
"We’ve just got to find a way to finish games," defensive end William Hayes said. "This team could easily be 9-2 right now, given the Kansas City game and the Minnesota game. Those are the only two games where we didn’t play that solid."
That’s an overly sunny way of looking at things, considering persistent problems like penalties, an inconsistent rushing attack and giving up defensive touchdowns have continued to haunt the Rams since they lost their home opener to the Vikings, 34-6. But considering its schedule, scores and notable wins, it’s safe to say St. Louis deserves better than a 4-7 record.
Injuries have also played a factor, and few have been bigger than the absence of Long, who has four sacks each of his past four seasons. Fisher said the return of that production will be huge if Long can play this week, and he’s eager to get back on the field after successful surgery for torn tendons in Long’s left foot.
"I’m excited to just be kind of in a routine of practicing, to be working toward something," Long said. "It means a lot because when you’re just treating every day and you know you don’t have a shot to be back it’s tough, but now you know you have a chance, so that’s what’s exciting for me."
His teammates are looking forward to his return as well, which should provide some key leadership for a young defense sparked by strong safety T.J McDonald. Rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald has emerged as a dominant force on the line and should benefit from the additional focus Long draws from offenses, which have been able to key on defensive end Robert Quinn all season.
Hayes and Eugene Sims have done an admirable job of filling in for Long at end for a line showing big improvements since a disappointing start for the pass rush. The Rams have 16 of their 22 sacks in the last six games with Hayes in the starting lineup, but he’s not worried about losing time with Long’s return.
"He just makes my game more flexible," Hayes said. "I feel like I’m a lot better when I can move around more so than just stand in one spot and he just brings a different type of energy to the field."
Of course, it won’t hurt that the St. Louis schedule gets considerably easier as well. After nine straight games against teams that have at least seven wins, the Rams face three teams in the next four weeks — Oakland, Washington and the New York Giants — that have combined for seven wins this season. The other two teams remaining on their schedule are Arizona (9-2) and, in the season finale, Seattle (7-4), which St. Louis already has defeated at home.
That stretch begins Sunday with the Raiders, who earned their first win last Thursday night against Kansas City. Naturally, Fisher and his players point to that game and other close losses as evidence this team is much better than its 1-10 record.
"I say it every year, the difference between a 6-10 team and a 10-6 team is one or two plays in four ballgames out of 16," veteran quarterback Shaun Hill said. "That’s the truth, and you can expand that to a 12-4 team to a 4-12 team."
St. Louis should find out if all that’s true soon enough. Perhaps the return of Long will provide the boost the Rams need, or maybe they’ll prove they really are better than their record indicates.
Since the Rams don’t play in the NFC South, the playoffs are almost certainly out of reach even if they win out and finish 9-7. But Fisher says crazier things have happened, and either way, they’ll approach every game the same as they look to build toward the future.
"When you’re looking at the dynamics and what they’ve put together there right now with the amount of young talent that they have out on the field there, that’s going to be a team down the road here that’s just going to get better and better and better," Raiders coach Tony Sporano said in a conference call. "They’re headed in the right direction. They’re doing things the right way."
All of that may be true, but the harsh reality of the NFL is none of it matters if St. Louis doesn’t start winning.