The Eagle was soaring last year when the Rams sacked San Francisco quarterbacks nine times en route to a 38-16 victory in the regular-season finale. Ten weeks ago, however, the Rams resorted to a less-aggressive, containment-oriented defense and beat the 49ers, 13-12.
So what’s in store for Monday night?
“We’ll try to mix it up,” Coach John Robinson said, smiling.
Are the 49ers burning the midnight projector bulb trying to figure out which tactic the Rams might employ this time?
“I’m sure they’re confused, well not confused, maybe they’re uncertain a little bit,” Robinson said. “I doubt Joe Montana will be confused.”
You’ll have to excuse Robinson for having a little fun talking about the Rams’ recent mastery of the 49ers--they’ve beaten them three times in a row, if you count a 16-13 exhibition victory in Tokyo.
And understand that Robinson is only joking when he says, “We’ve got their number.”
There was a time when the 49ers regularly danced on the Rams to the tune of scores such as 33-0 and 48-0. These days, the Rams feel as if they have a good shot at winning one of these biannual NFC West slug outs.
“I think it’s an even football game,” Robinson said, “and I think our players do, too.
“We haven’t played them that many times when you could say these two teams are equal. It’s closing in now, maybe. But they have that residual experience from their success and maybe three of the great players (Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig) in the history of this game.”
San Francisco also has an 11-2 record and a distinct advantage in the standings. But the Rams (9-4) could change that with a victory Monday night. If they beat the 49ers and win their last two games--at home against the Jets and at New England--then a San Francisco loss against either Buffalo or Chicago would give the Rams the division title.
“This game is serious to them,” Robinson said. “They’re playing for the championship.”
The Rams, however, feel like they present a formidable obstacle on the 49ers’ path to another world championship.
“The 49ers are clearly the team that is dominating the league,” Robinson said. “George (Seifert, 49er coach) has done a great job. You can’t underestimate that job. It’s not as though you just pick up the reins and the horse runs by itself.
“I’ll bet they’re saying, ‘We’re 11-2 and our best football is ahead of us.’ But we’re looking forward to playing them.”
Robinson is acutely aware that the glow of anticipation could fade in a hurry Monday evening if San Francisco puts together what he describes as “one of those absolutely perfect games.”
“I think with the 49ers, you’re always aware that they can produce that,” Robinson said. “We’ve all seen them play those kinds of games. They can take it up a notch. And they can let it slip down a notch and still pull it out.
“You know, all of sudden, it’s zip-zip-zip and it’s over.”
Seven of the past eight times the Rams have played host to the 49ers, it was zip-zip-zip and the Rams got zapped.
Forget the references to an emotional roller coaster, cornerback LeRoy Irvin feels as if he has been on a joy ride with the Blue Angels all season.
He’s not sure whether to scream in exhilaration or be sick.
“One week everybody wants me and the next week no one will talk to me,” Irvin said. “I guess that’s the nature of this business. Up, down, it’s mind boggling.”
He began the 1989 campaign with an impressive training-camp performance that helped lead the Rams to believe their secondary would be a strength.
A 30-day suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy put more than a slight damper on his summer, however. Shortly after he was reinstated on Sept. 26, the Rams slipped into the throes of a four-game losing streak and their pass defense was among the worst in the league.
Then, on Nov. 5, Irvin bruised his foot and saw very limited action the next two weeks. Meanwhile, heir apparent Clifford Hicks took over Irvin’s spot in the starting lineup.
Irvin’s first venture into his new business--fight promotion--proved to be a disaster when one of the boxers on the program, Tony Tubbs, tested positive for cocaine after winning his bout. Irvin lost, however. At least $20,000, according to one source.
His psyche was in a crash dive.
But Hicks hurt his knee in the first quarter at New Orleans and Irvin was back at right cornerback. He pulled out of his swoon with five tackles and a deflected pass against the Saints. And Sunday in Dallas he had three tackles, another pass defensed and a third-quarter interception that led to a 21-10 Ram lead.
Hicks is expected to return Monday night, but Robinson says Irvin will retain his starting assignment.
“LeRoy’s played well, he’s done the right things,” Robinson said. “There was the injury and he kind of hit a slump there, but he’s coming back now.”
Irvin, a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his 10th year, works hard at maintaining a cynical air these days. He couldn’t help but feel good after Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, though.
“When I was riding the bench, I had my retirement speech already written,” he said. “But now I’m back and who knows, maybe I’ll go one more year.”
Then he quickly reverted to the power of pessimistic thinking.
“But you can never tell,” he said, softly.
“And they say the fight game is a cut-throat business.”