ST. LOUIS — On paper, the St. Louis Rams didn’t give Sam Bradford much to throw to.
A graduate of two practice squads and an undrafted rookie with a balky left knee have turned out to be pretty good options for a franchise that’s one win away from its first playoff berth since 2004.
Pint-sized, do-it-all Danny Amendola is among the league leaders in receptions (83) and clutch third-down catches heading into Sunday’s winner-take-all game at Seattle for the NFC West title. His 84-yard kickoff return helped the Rams (7-8) ice last week’s victory against the 49ers and he averages 11 yards on punt returns.
“When he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s an effective guy,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “If you’ve got one of your talented guys out there, you get him the ball any way you can.”
Undrafted Danario Alexander has had three big games, offering a deep threat St. Louis lacked after season-ending injuries to Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton. The Rams have won all three.
“When he’s out there, it just gives us the ability to stretch the field a little bit more,” Bradford said. “I think that’s one of the big reasons our offense clicks a little bit better when he’s on.”
The Rams haven’t invested heavily in wide receivers during Spagnuolo’s two years as coach, and it hurt them in last year’s 1-15 season. This year, they’ve had much better luck with other unsung types like Brandon Gibson (50 catches, 3 TDs) and Laurent Robinson (32 catches, 2 TDs), both averaging better than 10 yards per catch.
“I’ve got all the confidence in the world in our wide receivers,” Bradford said. “They’ve beaten man coverage, they’ve beaten zone coverage, they’ve done everything we asked them to do.”
The Rams keep the 5-11, 186-pound Amendola so busy he leads the NFL with 2,283 all-purpose yards, 235 yards ahead of Darren Sproles. Quite a leap for a player undrafted out of Texas Tech who spent all of 2008 on the Cowboys practice squad and began 2009 doing the same thing for the Eagles.
“I always want to dream high,” Amendola said. “Anytime I can get the ball in my hands, it’s why I play the game.”
Amendola’s underthrown option pass, intended for Alexander, got the Rams off to a fast start last weekend. The 49ers had Alexander in double coverage but Nate Clements plowed into the wide receiver for a 39-yard pass interference call to the 1, and Steven Jackson scored on the next play.
“It wasn’t my best throw,” Amendola said. “It worked a lot better in practice than it did in the game.”
Alexander had a spectacular senior season at Missouri, leading the nation with 1,781 yards while scoring 14 touchdowns, and he’s a local comeback favorite. A fourth knee surgery in February ruined any chance of getting drafted and Alexander began the season on the practice squad while still rehabbing.
He missed three more games following surgery No. 5 to remove torn cartilage, and until last week the Rams had limited his snaps to avoid another setback.
The 49ers saw Alexander at his best. He caught six passes for 69 yards, including a twisting, acrobatic 46-yarder while falling to the turf that set up Bradford’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Robinson that put the Rams up by eight in the fourth quarter.
“I’m fulfilling my dream of being in the NFL and I’m very appreciative,” Alexander said. “I try to just have fun on Sundays.”
In a pair of three-point victories over the Chargers and Broncos, Alexander totaled eight receptions for 167 yards and a touchdown. He has only 17 catches, but is averaging 17.2 yards.
“He’s got downfield stuff, he’s got ability to make catches with people around him,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They like him, you can tell.”
Gibson wasn’t on the game-day roster the first two games, but has become a more consistent threat despite some dropped passes. Last weekend, he had three catches for 69 yards and he has at least three receptions the last eight games.
Robinson was off to a nice start last year before sustaining season-ending multiple injuries to his right leg in September, and was hindered early this year by a foot injury. Robinson was not the primary receiver on the touchdown pass against the 49ers, but found a way to get open while Bradford scrambled.