Our Man in Missouri - Week 7

Clay Matthews paid a visit to St Louis on Wednesday. The Green Bay Packers’ star linebacker was not supposed to arrive until this weekend, when his team are due to take on the hometown Rams, but four days ahead of kickoff there he was, trademark golden locks spilling out from under his helmet as he rampaged across his opponents’ practice field making tackles.

Or at least that’s how it looked from the sidelines. Closer inspection would reveal that this was not in fact Matthews but a crude caricature – Rams practice squad member Sammy Brown donning a blonde wig as he impersonated Matthews for the scout team.

It is common practice among NFL teams to have their backups simulate that week’s opponents in the build-up to a game – copying the plays they have seen on film and aping their techniques so that the starting offence and defence can practice against the schemes they are about to face. Key individuals, such as Matthews – or at least the man mimicking him – are often singled out through the use of a different coloured shirt or helmet.

The wig, though, was a special Jeff Fisher flourish. “It’s a team-issued deal,” said the Rams head coach with a smirk when asked about the wig at the end of practice. “We’ve done that in the past, particularly [when facing] Troy Polamalu. When you’re playing great players like Polamalu and Matthews, you like to know where they are on the field and [the wig] helps.

Fisher noted that he would select a different player to wear the wig tomorrow – something that Brown will surely appreciate. “I had to take it off,” said the linebacker after practice. “That thing was burning my face.”

The coach will hope, too, that by bringing a spot of levity to proceedings he can help his team move on from a deeply frustrating loss to Miami last Sunday. The Rams outgained the Dolphins by 461 yards to 209 and yet contrived to lose 17-14, with the formerly flawless rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein missing three field goal attempts (albeit the last of those was from 66 yards).

In analysing the defeat, Fisher had cited a combination of poor special teams play – the Rams also gave up their only turnover of the day on a fumbled kickoff – and individual mistakes. Wide receiver Brandon Gibson made one of the catches of the season on the game’s final drive but previously had failed to reel a more routine one in inside the Miami 20-yard line in the first quarter; rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins blew his coverage on the Dolphins’ opening touchdown.

Such errors will need to be at a minimum if the Rams are to overcome a Green Bay team who appear to have awoken from their early season slumber. The Packers’ 3-3 record is identical to that of St Louis, but during a 42-24 rout of the previously unbeaten Texans on Sunday they finally began to resemble the team which won 15 games last year. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for a franchise record-tying six touchdown passes.

The Rams are perfect at home so far this season, having beaten each of Washington, Seattle and Arizona at the Edward Jones Dome. Although they have struggled to sell out the stadium – their average attendance of 53,941 represents only about 82% of capacity and ranks 31st in the league – those present have nevertheless succeeded in creating a daunting wall of noise that is highly disruptive to visiting offences.

Their only fear on that front might be that for this game many of those empty seats will be filled this week by fans of the Packers – a team renowned for bringing high numbers of supporters even to their road games. They were loudly backed at Reliant Stadium last week en route to their win over the Texans.

“We travel really well,” said Rodgers in a conference call with St Louis reporters on Wednesday. “That’s a great thing about being a part of the Packers’ organization. Our fans are very loyal and all over the country. Whether it’s Packer fans that we have in the St. Louis area there, or it’s our fans making the trip down, we always look forward to sharing the stadium with them and hoping that they can give us a boost.”

For the Rams it is a must-have game ahead of their trip to London. The team’s players have been unanimous in their excitement at the prospect of the forthcoming Wembley visit, but an even greater thrill has been that of winning games. When next the International Series game against New England was first announced many assumed it would be a cake-walk for the Patriots. A Rams victory over Green Bay might just change a few attitudes.

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In the news …

A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:

RB Falstrom of the Associated Press looks at the less heralded achievements of Zuerlein’s fellow rookie specialist Johnny Hekker.

St Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jim Thomas looks at how a defence that was so long a weakness for St Louis has now become a strength.

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Five-minute interview: Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers

You were the Rams’ first pick in this year’s draft – selected 14th overall – but subsequently missed the first three games of the season through injury. How does it feel just to be finally playing for this team in the NFL?

Pretty good! It’s a new experience and I’m loving it, just trying to get better every game.

How different is it going up against an NFL offensive line rather than a college one?

Oh man, just the technique. You’re going up against a 31-year-old, 32-year-old who knows his game. Who has seen everything possible, so it’s hard to sneak something by them. You’ve got to really know your opponent but it’s hard when you’re going up against guys of the calibre that you’ve got in this league right now.

Does that go for training too?

You definitely go harder. But it’s more about being smarter than anything, because you got to take care of your body it’s a long season. You’ve got to do everything you can to stay healthy but still play at a high level.

What did you do with your first pay cheque?

I saved it. That’s my agent, my mum made sure I did that. So that’s still sitting in the bank account right now.

I was talking to Cortland Finnegan recently and he said that he would like to have a go at playing defensive tackle (http://www.nfluk.com/opinions/articles/our-man-missouri-2). Could we talk you into a job swap?

Um, no. Probably not cornerback, you’ve got to run too much. I’d be a quarterback. You get to throw the ball and run the ball, it’s whatever you really want to do. You get more control at quarterback, I would love to be a quarterback one day.

But if you were a quarterback, you’d be getting chased by people like you …

Yeah, which would be weird … that would be weird getting chased and tackled and stuff like that. And it’s sad to say it but I really don’t like getting hit – I like hitting other people. I think that goes for a lot of defensive players.  So I would love to be a quarterback, but I wouldn’t want to get hit.

Have you been to the UK before?

No,not at all. It’s going to be a first experience and I’m going to enjoy it.

What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think of London?

Soccer. I know it’s a soccer town and a soccer nation, so hopefully just enjoy Wembley Stadium and the tradition in the stadium.

Why should fans in the UK get behind the Rams?

Oh man. You want to see a team that tries hard, an underdog team every week? You just got to support us, we’ll surprise anybody.