St. Louis Rams (4-6) at Denver Broncos (3-7)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, John Lynch, Nischelle Turner
PREDICTION: Broncos 28-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos entered Week 12 with the league's second-worst run defense allowing 143.5 yards per game. A unit with seven starters at least 30 years old is giving up far too many big plays, and Rams RB Steven Jackson will have an excellent opportunity for his first 100-yard rushing game since Week 7. And while rookie QB Sam Bradford lacks great experience in his receiving corps, Denver has allowed 40 completions of 20-plus yards. Denver's offense has gone with far more two-tight end sets of late to improve pass protection and the ground game. St. Louis matches up poorly in the secondary.
FAST FACTS: Broncos WR Brandon Lloyd is the first player since Dallas' Michael Irvin in 1992 to break 1,000 receiving yards through 10 games while averaging at least 19 yards per reception.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
In the last two games, the Rams have had various players experiencing issues with cramps. Players are constantly counseled about being hydrated. A sign outside the team's meeting rooms emphasize staying hydrated "all week," with an emphasis on the word "week."
This week, as the team prepares to play in Denver, they will also be dealing with the altitude in the Mile High City.
One way running back Steven Jackson is acclimating himself is with an altitude tent he has that is over a bed he has in an extra bedroom in the basement of his house. Sometimes, he'll spend the entire night sleeping in it.
"I've actually been using it since training camp," Jackson said. "It's to help, one, to get accustomed to what we're going to face this weekend in Denver, having thin air. And two, it actually helps the body recuperate a little faster with the blood cells, muscles that tear in the game, just the abuse your body goes through. It helps the healing process speed up a little faster. I've enjoyed it; I've used it all season."
Jackson said he decided on the altitude tent when he was thinking of getting a hyperbaric chamber. Said Jackson, "I was doing my research and a lot of people said it wasn't a huge difference and I opted to not have to 'go under' in the hyperbaric chamber, so I did the tent thing. I chickened out."
Former Rams defensive end Leonard Little had one, as do a few other current players, including tackle Jason Smith. Jackson said some players have come over and used his. Cornerback Ron Bartell has one, but doesn't use it anymore after having "a bad experience."
A bad experience? Bartell said a zipper got jammed and he was inside for two hours. Two hours?
Laughed Bartell, "It was expensive, so I wasn't going to tear myself out of there. So I had to wait until my wife got home and she ended up getting me out."
Asked about altitude issues, coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "The altitude thing is no more than just hydration. So they'll just continue to hydrate -- the electrolytes, the whole thing. We've got stuff on the plane. They're on top of it right now."
Aside from the altitude, Jackson knows come Sunday, he will be dealing with something more: a team geared to stop him and the team's running game.
The Broncos have allowed 143.5 yards rushing per game, the second-worst average in the league, and 4.4 yards per attempt. Jackson is averaging 4.0 yards per rush, and after rushing for at least 100 yards in three straight games, and has been under 100 in his last three. In games against Carolina, San Francisco and Atlanta, Jackson has totaled 194 yards on 54 rushes (3.6 per rush).
He has grown accustomed to extra attention each week. So it was that Jackson paused when asked about Denver's problems stopping the run.
He said, "The thing is, I hate this kind of question."
When a reported joked that he can ask it a different way, Jackson laughed and said, "No, I'm going to answer the question because I think we do a good job week in and week out as an offensive team trying to establish the run and get things going. But when we come to town, the St. Louis Rams, a defense shows up for us.
"So I expect that to happen with Denver. I expect them to concentrate on trying to take the run away from us and force us to throw it through there. So I'm not going to disrespect the Denver defense and say we're going to come out there and have our way in the running game. We're going to have to work for every yard that we get and that's just how things are when we show up to town."
Jackson also knows he needs to have more than the 11 carries he had this past Sunday against Atlanta. A combination of the Falcons' ball control and the Rams being stopped on third down kept that from happening.
He concluded, "I like to be in the flow of the game. I like to touch the ball on each and every drive, so when they keep you on the sideline for so long, when the time of possession like they had control, it makes it very hard to get into a rhythm. But we would like to get more chances in the running game, more chances to sustain drives. I think it'll happen."
Broncos defensive end Justin Bannan, in his ninth NFL season, wracked his brain when asked if he can recall a rookie quarterback as impressive as Sam Bradford, this week's opponent.
Peyton Manning? Well, the Colts did go 3-13 and he had 26 TD passes vs. 28 interceptions in 1998.
Ben Roethlisberger is more like it: The AFC Offensive Player of the Year in 2004 and quarterback of a team that reached the AFC title game.
Bannan mentioned former teammate Joe Flacco, too, since the Ravens earned a wild-card berth with the quarterback completing 60 percent of his passes and compiling a rating over 80 in 2008.
But the list is short, regardless.
Bradford already holds the franchise rookie record for completions (228) and attempts (376), and his 2,158 yards are third.
Last week, his NFL rookie record streak of consecutive passes without an interception ended at 169 on a botched shovel pass, no less.
"He looks like a seasoned vet back there," Bannan said. "It's rare, very rare. You don't see it every day."
Having a stud in the backfield like Steven Jackson helps. But the Broncos to a man say they are particularly impressed by Bradford's quick decision making and pocket presence.
"He's really poised for a young guy. But we're not going to just put him on a throne," linebacker Mario Haggan said. "We're going to do our job and rush him and throw things at him and hopefully make him play like a rookie."
Broncos coach Josh McDaniels pointed out that San Diego blitzed Bradford on Oct. 17 a whopping 18 straight times without forcing a turnover. The Chargers won that game, 20-17.
"Usually when you get a young guy coming in, team's blitz him a lot and try to make him think fast and make quick decisions. That's usually where you force mistakes," Bannan said. "But the guys getting the ball out quick."
Bradford is currently challenging several NFL rookie passing records, all held by Manning. His current pace would land him second in passing yards, first in completions and attempts and tied for second in TD passes.
"That's in the middle of making plays too. It's not like their throwing screens and checkdowns. If that was the case, maybe it wouldn't be as impressive," McDaniels said. "But he's throwing the ball down the field, he's throwing double moves, He's standing in against the blitz, converting third and 13s. this is not a team that's made the offense so simple that he can't make mistakes.
"They're asking for a lot from this ugly and he's responded very well. One of the most important things is the way he handles situations that aren't ideal because a lot of people could throw interceptions and turn the ball over and says I'm a rookie. He has not done that. That's a big credit to him."
--LT Rodger Saffold had no negative effects from practicing Wednesday and was a full participant in Thursday's practice.
--P Donnie Jones has been doing limited work in practice because of a calf problem in his kicking leg, but he has been fine on game days.
--WR Danario Alexander was limited again in practice Thursday, but appears on track to play on Sunday.
--OG John Greco had been sharing time with Adam Goldberg at right guard, but with OT Renardo Foster active, Greco hasn't been active in recent weeks. The running game has been better with Greco on the field.
--QB Kyle Orton now has 3,023 yards passing, marking the second straight season he's passed the 3,000-yard barrier. It's the most yards through 10 games in team history. He's also on pace to obliterate his 2009 career high of 3,802 yards, needing to average only 128 yards over the final six games.
--DE Kevin Vickerson needs just two tackles to break his career single-season high (28), set last season with Tennessee.
--C J.D. Walton is one of just five rookies to start every game this season on the offensive line. Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey, San Francisco's Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati and St. Louis' Rodger Saffold are the others.
--LB D.J. Williams (concussion) practiced for a second straight day but isn't expected to be a full participant and likely won't be cleared to play until the end of the week. Joe Mays would start if Williams is unable to go.
--OLB Robert Ayers practiced fully for a second straight day, and, after being a limited participant last week, there are strong signs he'll return off his foot injury after a seven-week absence Sunday.
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