Rams, Lions beginning to reap rewards of rebuilding

For a non-divisional game pitting teams with only two victories between them, St. Louis vs. Detroit is far more intriguing than it might appear at first glance.

It's a matchup of clubs following almost identical rebuilding plans and with reason to believe that they're headed in the right direction.

At 2-2 and in a three-way tie for first in the NFC West, the Rams clearly have more reason to feel that way than the 0-4 Lions. But the Lions have been highly competitive, losing three games by five or fewer points, including two road losses to NFC North rivals with a combined 6-2 record.

Both teams are led by defensive-minded coaches: Steve Spagnuolo, who joined the Rams after serving as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, and Jim Schwartz, who joined the Lions after guiding the defense of the Tennessee Titans. Both also have quarterbacks chosen with the top overall pick of the draft: Sam Bradford, whom St. Louis picked last April from Oklahoma, and Matthew Stafford, whom Detroit selected in 2009 from Georgia.

It's probably fair to say that the Rams and Lions could very well both have multiple victories if Stafford, sidelined since suffering a shoulder injury in Week 1, were healthy. Shaun Hill is expected to make his fourth consecutive start against Bradford, who has started for the Rams since the beginning of the season.

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"We're basically mirror images of each other," Rams cornerback Ronald Bartell said. "You're talking about two defensive-oriented coaches, two young quarterbacks. They've been in a lot of close games. They're unfortunate to come out on the losing side, but they're a good football team. They have a strong offense, a great front four on defense. It's the same type of franchise we are, the same type of philosophy, which is running the football, taking care of the football and playing tough defense."

Who would have believed that anyone would be able to say that about the Rams and the Lions while keeping a straight face? But it's true.

The Rams began the season with back-to-back heartbreaking losses -- 17-13 to Arizona and 16-14 to Oakland. Then, they proceeded to win back-to-back games (30-16 against Washington and 20-3 against Seattle). Besides snapping a 10-game losing skid to the Seahawks, the Rams also surpassed last year's win total.

"I think you definitely can say things are starting to turn around for this franchise and this team," Bartell said. "But by no means do we feel like we've arrived already or we've accomplished a lot. I mean, it's only Week 5. This is a week-to-week league, a game-to-game league, and that's the attitude we take. We're just going to keep working hard and keep approaching each week as a new opportunity to prove to everyone that we're a good football team, which we believe we really are."

Bradford has performed well, often exceeding expectations for a rookie quarterback (even one who received $50 guaranteed million because of his draft status). His teammates like to razz him about his contract, promptly giving him the nickname "Fifty." But Bradford has been just as quick to earn their respect and trust.

"Sam has been great," Bartell said. "Since Day 1, he's come in here and he's been willing to learn, willing to listen. He rarely makes the same mistake twice. I think the sky's the limit for him. There are not too many quarterbacks you can say that about, but he has a chance to be very special."

Wide receiver Mark Clayton, acquired for practically nothing in a trade with Baltimore just before the start of the season, has been highly productive as Bradford's go-to target. Steven Jackson remains one of the top running backs in the league.

The Rams also are playing better on defense, which received a leadership boost from the free-agent addition of tackle Fred Robbins.

"He's terrific in the locker room," said Spagnuolo, who coached Robbins during his time with the Giants. "He's great for the young guys. I texted him after (the Washington) game just to say I thought his leadership helped us win that game, and he'll continue to do that, I'm sure."

After last season's 2-14 finish, the Lions seemed to do plenty to help themselves in the offseason. They enhanced their defensive front by signing free-agent end Kyle Vanden Bosch from the Titans and making former Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh the second overall pick of the draft. Suh leads the Lions with three sacks.

Their second pick in the first round, former California running back Jahvid Best, is their leading rusher and a dynamic force, although he has been slowed significantly by an injured toe. The Lions looked to upgrade their receiving corps by adding former Seahawk Nate Burleson, but he has been limited to only two games because of an ankle injury.

It seemed as if Detroit was about to begin the season with a win at Chicago. But a controversial officiating call wiped out an apparent touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson with 24 seconds left, and after two more incompletions, the Bears secured a 19-14 triumph. The Lions proceeded to lose a shootout the following week, 35-32, to the Philadelphia Eagles before suffering a 24-10 defeat at Minnesota. They experienced more frustration in a 28-26 loss at Green Bay in Week 4.

"It really comes down to a game of inches," Lions linebacker Julian Peterson said. "Unfortunately, we haven't been getting the breaks when it comes towards the end of the game. But we kind of shoot ourselves in the foot at times in the beginning to kind of put us in some of those types of positions. We'll give up a big play or have a big play happen against us, and then we start to settle down. Or we'll be in the driver's seat and then we let a big play happen and it's like, 'Oh, here we go again.'

"But I'd say we're (heading) in a right direction. I mean, sooner or later, it's going to happen, we're going to get this win. And when it happens, it's going to be great for our team."

» Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci

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