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Season in Review: Part Three

Posted Jan 27, 2011

Coming out of the bye week, the Rams found themselves at 4-4 and sitting squarely in the thick of the race in the NFC West Division.

But there was still plenty of work to do as they entered a more difficult stretch of the schedule include a daunting stretch of road games. In playing three of the first four after the bye away from the Edward Jones Dome, the third quarter of the season represented a chance for the Rams to prove their legitimacy as a division contender.

Game No. 9 - @ San Francisco – 49ers 23, Rams 20

The Rams opened the second half of the season against a 49ers team that to that point hadn’t quite lived up to expectations as the favorite to win the NFC West Division.

Like in their narrow loss to Tampa Bay earlier in the season, the Rams jumped out to a lead and appeared poised to claim their first victory on the road while moving above .500 for the first time on the season.

When all was said and done, though, a sloppy game filled with penalty flags and big plays ultimate got away from the Rams as they fell 23-20 in overtime.

“That’s a tough one to lose,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I’m proud of the way we hung in there, proud of the way we came back and able to take it to overtime. But we had a lot of opportunities to put that game away in the fourth quarter and just weren’t able to do it.”
 
Facing a third-and-2 at St. Louis’ 45, Niners quarterback Troy Smith dropped back to pass and was instantly pressured by end Chris Long. As Long dragged Smith to the ground, the signal caller uncorked a pass to nobody in particular deep down the field.

Tight end Delanie Walker stopped his route in its tracks and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe barreled into him as the flag came out.

Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and the rest of the Rams waited for the flag to be waved off for an uncatchable pass. But that nullification never came and Nedney booted the game winner three plays later.

“I asked,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s a loud stadium. I screamed to ask it. But you have to go on to the next play.”

Niners kicker Joe Nedney booted the game winning field goal soon after and the Rams couldn’t help but feel that another golden opportunity had slipped away.

The missed opportunities throughout the game can also come back to haunt as the Rams again found out Sunday.

Bradford narrowly missed a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola early in the game.  Safety Craig Dahl just missed an interception that could have ended a San Francisco drive that resulted in a field goal. Even an early holding penalty on tackle Rodger Saffold snuffed out a potential touchdown drive as the Rams settled for a field goal instead.

Meanwhile, the 49ers were regularly converting on their opportunities as they produced big play after big play.

All told, San Francisco finished with nine plays of 21 or more yards and drew a pair of pass interference flags that also went for 22 or more yards.

“They made a lot of big plays it seemed like,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “I don’t know what the formula was for them. But they had a lot of explosive plays. You can’t let that happen as a defense. You have to try to make teams methodically drive on you. When you give teams big plays like that, it gives them free points.”

Game No. 10 – vs. Atlanta – Falcons 34, Rams 17

Reeling from one of the most disappointing losses of the season, the Rams returned home to face their toughest opponent yet, the NFC-leading Falcons.

Led by star quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Roddy White, the Falcons came in riding a wave of momentum. But the Rams immediately showed their resolve by jumping to an early 10-3 lead.

Unfortunately, the Falcons took over in the second quarter and never looked back on their way to a victory that was closer than the final score might indicate.

“Playing a really good team like that you have got to be perfect and we weren’t,” Long said. “Record wise, the way they play football, they deserve all the credit they get.”

The loss dropped the Rams to 4-6 with two consecutive losses. It also snapped their four-game home winning streak.

In fact, the Rams actually held a second-half lead and came within an eyelash of making it a two-point game with all of their timeouts and the two minute warning left to get the ball back for a potential game winning drive.

“Typically we are a very tough team at home,” running back Steven Jackson said. “We were in that game all the way until the last three or four minutes. Atlanta is a very good team and we have to acknowledge that. When we made mistakes, they were able to capitalize on it.”

Trailing 26-17 with 7:52 to play, the Rams went into hurry up mode offensively. Bradford was his usual calm, efficient self, marching the Rams down the field with completions of 11, 7, 19, 5, 4 and 5 yards with a 17-yard gain on a scramble mixed in.

With 3:31 to go, the Rams had a third down at Atlanta’s 2 with a chance to punch it in and put the pressure on the Falcons to get first downs to ice the game.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur called for a shovel pass to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. At the snap, Jackson darted into the right flat as a decoy with the defense flowing his way.

Hoomanawanui came off the left edge but ran into guard Adam Goldberg on the play. Bradford released the timing pass but Hoomanawanui wasn’t there because of the collision.

The ball floated into the hands of Atlanta safety William Moore, who intercepted it and took it to the 13.

It was a strange result for a play that is generally considered a safe call.

“It’s usually a touchdown or incompletion or a stop and then we kick a field goal,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “It’s a pretty safe play in my opinion. I would have never thought that (would happen).”

Atlanta scored a late touchdown to expand the margin and leave the Rams short of a momentous victory.

The good news to come out of that day, though, was that every team in the NFC West lost also so the Rams lost no ground in the division.

In other words, all things remained possible.

“We just keep fighting because we still have it,” defensive tackle Fred Robbins said. “We are hurting ourselves and we have to do a better job of handling the mistakes we make. We have to keep playing hard because the division is still wide open. So we can’t quit now.”

Game No. 11 - @ Denver – Rams 36, Broncos 33

At 4-6, the Rams found themselves with their backs against the wall heading to Denver where the Broncos, regardless of record, have long been one of the league’s most dangerous home teams.

Still searching for that elusive first road win, this one came down to the closing moments yet again as the Rams finally came up with the plays necessary to steal a victory on the road despite some tense moments late.

So as the Broncos took over at their 34 with 1:06 to play and the Rams clinging to a three-point lead, Long and his defensive mates look at one another and made it clear that this time the ending to the movie had to change.

“We said that to each other,” Long said. “We can’t let this happen. That’s on us. Sam and the guys went out and played an awesome game and we had to do our part and we did at the end.”

Indeed, with the game on the line in the closing moments and even more to the point, a road win hanging in the balance, the Rams had no choice but to come up with a stop or risk losing yet another in a series of heart breaking, gut wrenching defeats away from home.

This time, the script was changed and the Rams did just that, coming up with the plays needed on four consecutive downs to hang on for a 36-33 victory, improved to 5-6 on the season and back into a tie atop the NFC West Division with Seattle.

So when Denver quarterback Kyle Orton’s fourth down pass attempt fell incomplete after he took a shot from Long, the Rams couldn’t help but to be happy and let out a big sigh of relief.

“At that point we knew we won the game so it was wild relief,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “There’s never relief until it says there is no way mathematically with the clock they can win the game or end up scoring as long as we don’t fumble in the victory formation. So it felt pretty good.”

What also felt pretty good was the Rams’ offensive performance. On a day when the defense struggled perhaps more than at any point this season, it was picked up by an offense that saw Bradford piece together one of the finest performances by a rookie quarterback in league history.

As the Broncos repeatedly stacked the run box with the intent of stopping Jackson, the Rams found themselves with favorable one on one matchups in the passing game.

And Bradford made it a point to take full advantage of the situation as he picked apart Denver’s defense. When it was all said and done, Bradford set a career high with 308 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-37 passing for a rating of 113.3.

Bradford spread the ball to nine receivers and hit tight ends Billy Bajema (twice) and Michael Hoomanawanui (once) for his three scores.

With that victory, the Rams found themselves right back in the mix in a first-place tie with Seattle. Perhaps more important, in earning their first road victory, the Rams again sent the message that all things remain possible.

“We’ll take that,” Long said. “It’s the wild, wild West. You never really know what can happen and know who is winning, who is losing. You have just got to take care of your business and hopefully we’ll be in it at the end here.”

Game No. 12 - @ Arizona – Rams 19, Cardinals 6

Squarely back in the mix of the NFC West race and with their first road victory in their pocket, the Rams ventured west in search of a measure of revenge against the Cardinals.

In a game that was, for the most part, a defensive struggle, the Rams made enough plays and got a strong performance from their defense on the way to a 19-6 win to even their record at 6-6 and stay tied with Seattle for the division lead.

“We’re feeling good, especially with a division win and two road wins, that’s what it takes,” Robbins said. “You have got to be able to win on the road and win in December. That’s what it’s all about.”

In coming away with the win, the Rams posted a 10-0 second half margin that signaled a shift in recent performance in the final 30 minutes. So, for once, there wasn’t much drama in the second half.

“It was 9-6 at halftime and we feel like as a whole team we didn’t play very well,” Spagnuolo said. “I heard one comment in the locker room which I echoed but when I pulled them back together was we had not played very well and yet we were up by three points. We kind of rallied behind that and then in the second half we had to play better. I think we did that. There’s probably some maturity in that.”

Leading the charge in the Rams’ second-half was a revived Rams defense that had been gashed for a number of big plays in the first half. Arizona gained 177 yards in the half with nine plays of more than 10 yards mixed in.

With those big plays on their mind, the defense came back out in the second half, ratcheted up the emphasis on stopping Arizona’s running game and relentlessly blitzing all three of the Cardinals quarterbacks who played.

In the second half, the Rams defense held Arizona to just 47 yards of offense and no points and came up with three sacks, an interception and limited the Cardinals to just three gains of 10 yards or more.

With the defense firmly in control, the Rams offense again found a rhythm by going without a huddle.

After a strong drive to end the first half netted a field goal to take the lead into the locker room, Bradford says the Rams gained the confidence needed to come out in the second half and punch one in the end zone.

Buoyed by the no huddle, the Rams gained rhythm on their second drive of the third quarter in marching 85 yards on 10 plays in four minutes, 42 seconds.

After hitting on a couple of big plays on third down with completions to Danny Amendola and Danario Alexander for 17 and 16 yards, respectively, Jackson took it upon himself to finish it with a 27-yard touchdown burst off the right side behind a textbook kick out block from right tackle Jason Smith for a 16-6 lead that ultimately put the game out of reach.

With their first win in one try in December and back to back wins on the road, the Rams wasted no time making it clear that they remain unsatisfied with their impressive turnaround.

As the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints loomed the following week, the attention hadn’t quite turned but was well on its way not long after the final whistle.

“Our mentality is to have great expectations,” Robbins said. “We are still humble, still have a ways to go here in the last month but guys are putting in the work. We are still committed to coming into work and getting better each week. We are not satisfied with where we are at but we have to continue to strive. I think the main thing is with wins, we celebrate today and tomorrow we will put it behind us and move on to next week.”