No matter how many times he was asked about it or how often he saw the replay, Rams linebacker Cory Littleton had difficulty believing he scored the first touchdown of his life.
The San Diego native said he never had found his way into the end zone at any level — in Pop Warner, at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley, or at the University of Washington — so his interception of a Nick Mullens pass and 19-yard dash to glory in the second quarter of Sunday’s 48-32 victory over San Francisco felt surreal to him.
“It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Something I’ve never done,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been playing football for like 16 years and I finally got a touchdown. It’s amazing.”
Defensive lineman Michael Brockers couldn’t believe it either, but for a different reason.
“He makes so many plays, I never thought that was his first defensive touchdown,” Brockers said of Littleton, who was voted to the Pro Bowl as a special-teams player and has made a significant impact all season with his fearless punt-blocking. “It felt like he had one before.”
Littleton picked a good time for his first pick-six, which actually was his second interception in a game that enabled the Rams to clinch the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. On the first interception, he grabbed a Mullens pass intended for Richie James at San Francisco’s 35-yard line and ran it back to the 13. Two C.J. Anderson carries and an extra point later, the Rams had a 14-0 lead.
“That thing was hanging up in the air. It was going all types of crazy,” Littleton said, his voice still bubbling with enthusiasm well after the game. “Next thing you know, I try to run underneath it, scoop it, and then that’s when my offensive skills came out. I never played offense really in my life, and whenever I get a chance to run with the ball that’s the best moment.”
On the second interception Mullens was throwing out of the shotgun, again intending to hit James, but Littleton stepped in. He scampered the last yard or two all alone, the ball in his outstretched right hand, fully enjoying the novelty and the neighborhood.
“Certain guys just have a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” coach Sean McVay said. “He’s a guy that you win with, players like Cory Littleton. I think his improvement over the last couple years is a real credit to his preparation, but then getting the opportunities and maximizing them.”
Littleton has made the most of every chance he has gotten with the Rams, who signed him after he went undrafted. He gained notice with his special-teams play as a rookie in 2016 and made a few spot starts at inside linebacker last season when Mark Barron was injured. The Rams traded Alec Ogletree in March, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips moved Littleton into the middle linebacker spot and made him the defensive signal-caller. Littleton thrived while starting every game this season and accounted for 125 tackles, four sacks, one safety, 13 passes defended and three interceptions.
“He did a great job last year,” McVay said. “Continuing to do such a phenomenal job — whether it’s blocking punts, being a big-time contributor, capitalizing where he was one of those guys that you create some packages just to get him on the field on defense...You just can’t say enough about the command that he’s taking.”
His teammates have seen and appreciated Littleton’s growth and remarkable progress. They were delighted but not surprised by his outstanding effort Sunday. “I’ve been seeing it all season. It started in training camp. I knew he was going to be a hell of a player and week in, week out, he’s making a bunch of plays,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “I love him. I love it. He deserves it. Hard-working guy. Smart guy. How he goes undrafted who knows, but his day is going to come.”
“They didn’t take a chance on me and I ended up making the opportunity work out here at the Rams and everything’s good,” he said.
“So honestly, there’s no point to focus on the negativity and the past. Everything is positive. Everything’s going great.”
Happy as he was to score that touchdown, he figured he won’t get to keep the ball as a souvenir — and he doesn’t mind.
“I’m pretty sure my momma is going to ask for it first,” he said of his mother, Toni. “It’s hard to fight that.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen