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Season in Review: Part Two

Posted Jan 10, 2013


Entering the second quarter of the season, the Rams held a 2-2 record but had done enough to generate some buzz and hope that 2012 could have something special in store.

With an undefeated Arizona team coming to town on a short week for the team’s lone primetime appearance of the season on a Thursday night at the Edward Jones Dome, the Rams saw a golden opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the league that they’d be a team to deal with in 2012.

GAME 5 vs. ARIZONA

For the majority of their 17 years in St. Louis, when people think of winning football and the Rams, the first thing that comes to mind is a high wire act of an offense.

Against Arizona, a packed house of full-throated Rams fans at the Edward Jones Dome might just have witnessed a seismic shift in what the next victorious version of the Rams could become.

Taking their cues from a dominant defense that battered Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb and stuffed the Cardinals random attempts to get the running game going, the Rams surged to a 17-3 victory Thursday night.

“This defense is the heart and soul of this team right now,” receiver Chris Givens said.  “We feed off their energy.  You guys see how they go out there every snap and play with passion and intensity.  As an offense, that’s all you can ask from a defense because that gives everyone else on the team energy.”

With the win, the Rams moved into territory they haven’t visited much in recent history. They moved to 3-2 on the season, the first time they’d been above the .500 mark since November of 2006.

In the process, St. Louis bolstered its record at the Edward Jones Dome to 3-0 on the year and 2-0 in the rough and tumble NFC West Division, where every week figures to have the look of a heavyweight slugfest.

The Rams also interrupted Arizona’s seven game winning streak on their home turf and handed the Cardinals their first loss of the season.

“It feels good,” running back Steven Jackson said. “I mean, within four days we’ve beaten two divisional teams that are very good. We’re going to have a very tough division and for us to defend our home turf and be 3-0 at home is huge. This team is fighting and it feels good.”

Perhaps nobody deserved to feel better Thursday night than a defense that came out on fire and just continued to spike that blaze all night long with a relentless pass rush that harassed and bamboozled Kolb all night.

By the time the night was through, the Rams had gotten to Kolb for nine sacks, the most by a Rams defense since Sept. 20, 1998 at Buffalo. Leading the way was a thoroughly dominant performance from a defensive line that continued to punish Arizona’s leaky offensive line and, in turn, Kolb.

End Robert Quinn led the charge with his first career multi-sack game, dropping Kolb on three occasions and forcing a fumble on Arizona’s final possession to seal the victory. Fellow end Chris Long also picked up a sack, among the nine for the team.

“We know we can be a dominant defense,” Quinn said. “We don’t try to talk too much. Just go out there and execute and let our play do the talking for us.”

The pass rush was far from the Rams only defensive success on the night. Arizona finished with just 282 yards of total offense and came out of three trips into the red zone with just three points to show for it.

In unofficial pressbox statistics, the Rams had seven passes defended and 11 quarterback hits to go with the sacks. Aside from a field goal allowed on the opening drive, the Rams completely shut the Cardinals down.

“It was a great effort,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “The team had a sense for what we had to do because going into this game with the respect factor for their defense, their defense is really, really talented, and so we knew it was going to be a hard day at work, offensively, so the defense had to step up and they did.”

The offense provided plenty of help for the shutdown defense as quarterback Sam Bradford threw two touchdown passes, one to tight end Lance Kendricks for 7 yards and his first career score and another to emerging deep threat Givens, for 51 yards and his first career touchdown.

But it was the defense that stole the show on that night.

“It just feels so good to be on a defense that can help this team win,” Long said. “In the past, I’ve even been embarrassed at how we’ve played defense and feeling helpless and all those things.  Every day we step on the field now I feel like we have an opportunity to win the game on defense.  With the offense playing the way they did – pounding the rock and Sam making throws when he had to – that’s a winning formula.”

GAME 6 at MIAMI

Back on the road after a two-game home stint, the Rams traveled to take on an improving Dolphins team at Sun Life Stadium with the hopes of extending their winning streak to three games.

There was a familiar formula at work on the Sun Life Stadium field as the Rams looked for their first road victory of the season against the Dolphins.

Team A controlled the ball, controlled the clock and outgained the other. Team B won the turnover battle, avoided costly mistakes and scored timely touchdowns.

Through the first five weeks of the season, the Rams had been – for the majority of the time – the latter. Against the Dolphins, the tables were turned as Miami took advantage of the Rams’ numerous missed chances and emerged with a 17-14 victory.

“We had a lot of opportunities today to win this game and we didn’t do it, particularly in the first half,” Fisher said. “(It’s) disappointing but the effort was outstanding. This team played hard and had a chance to tie it up and couldn’t get it done.”

The disappointing loss dropped the Rams back to 3-3 on the season in a game that they statistically dominated in nearly every category except the one that mattered most: the scoreboard.

Despite the team’s dominance, they still found themselves with an opportunity to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter.

Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who missed two field goals earlier in the game wide left, had a chance to redeem himself as time expired. After Bradford scored on a sneak from the 1 and found Jackson for the two-point conversion, Bradford and the Rams drove into Miami territory after starting at their 3.

Bradford was sacked for a loss of 3 on third down with 37 seconds left. With just one timeout left, Fisher opted to send Zuerlein out for a 66-yard field goal, a would be record rather than attempting to convert on fourth-and-7 with one timeout left.

“We had a good wind,” Fisher said. “The odds of Greg making that kick from that distance, I thought were much greater than us converting that fourth down. I didn’t think about it. I counted off and knew it was 65, 66 and he’s got that kind of leg.”

With a wind at his back, Zuerlein got a lot of it as the ball sailed into the net. But, like the previous two misses, it sailed wide left. The rookie, who had made 15 consecutive field goals for a rookie record, missed his final three.

“Anytime I can help the team win, I definitely want the opportunity, especially with what happened earlier,” Zuerlein said. “It just didn’t work out for me.”

All told, the Rams outgained Miami 462 to 192, had 22 first downs to Miami’s 12 and owned time of possession by almost seven minutes.

Bradford threw for 315 yards on 26-of-39 passing for a rating of 91.3. Running backs Daryl Richardson and Steven Jackson combined with Bradford for 162 yards on 27 carries, an average of 6 yards per attempt against the league’s best run defense.

What should have been a breakthrough offensive performance left the Rams exasperated by missed opportunities that were the results of costly penalties, missed connections and all the other factors that keep a team out of the end zone.

“As an offense we have got to learn how to put the ball in the end zone,” Jackson said. “We came out and ran the ball pretty well. On the road, it is really hard to win so we have definitely got to turn those opportunities for touchdowns into seven points.”

GAME 7 vs. GREEN BAY

Their comeback hopes hanging in the balance about halfway through the fourth quarter of the game against vaunted Green Bay, the Rams defense found itself in a spot that had become quite familiar during the first 52 minutes of the game.

After a quick drive for a Jackson 6-yard touchdown run that trimmed the Packers lead to 20-13 with 8:50 to go, the Rams defense desperately needed a stop to get the ball back in the hands of an offense that had just posted one of its quickest scoring drives of the season.

Five plays into the drive, the Rams had Green Bay right where they wanted: a third and 7 and a prime opportunity to get off the field. But, as happened most of the day, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers calmly converted with an 8-yard pass to receiver Randall Cobb, who shook loose from a Jo-Lonn Dunbar tackle to move the chains.

The drive culminated in yet another third down conversion, this time on third-and-9 when Rodgers found Cobb for a 39-yard touchdown that killed the Rams’ comeback hopes. A stop, a takeaway, anything would have sufficed but it was a theme that haunted the Rams all day.

What followed was a 30-20 Green Bay win that handed the Rams their first loss at the Edward Jones Dome this season and lowered their record to 3-4.

“When you play a team as good as they are offensively, in order to have a chance to win you need to get turnovers,” Fisher said. “You need to get the ball back or you need to get off the field on third down. That’s obviously what we did not do today defensively and that’s really the different in the game.”

An early-season avalanche of turnovers had gone dry as the Rams defense was unable to come away with a turnover for the second consecutive week. They had just one in the previous three weeks.

Perhaps more maddening, though, was the inability to get off the field on third down when the opportunities presented themselves.

Rodgers’ ability to scramble and keep plays alive gives Green Bay an inherent advantage in converting on the money downs and it was overwhelmingly apparent on Sunday. The Packers finished nine-of-15, a 60 percent conversion rate, on third down and seemingly found a way to keep the chains moving even in the toughest situations.

“I think part of it had to do with tackling,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “Aaron Rodgers is really good maneuvering within the pocket, I think that’s one of the best things he does. He buys enough time with his feet to make throws down field. We have to watch the film in the morning and fix it fast. We don’t have enough time to sulk on this. We have just got to fix it fast and move on.”

The Packers were seven-of-10 on third down in the deciding second half after holding a 10-6 lead at halftime.

After being almost completely shut down in the third quarter, the Rams got some traction and scored a touchdown as Givens sparked a drive with a 56-yard catch and run. Jackson scored on a 6-yard run five plays later to make it 20-13.

The late offensive outburst – including a cosmetic 3-yard touchdown catch by wideout Austin Pettis – was too little too late, especially against the high-octane Packers.

“They’re red hot right now,” Jackson said. “They have one of the best quarterbacks in football. We knew it was going to be a challenge. We have to continue to get better at that.

“We’ve still got work to do. We’re slowly coming together as an offense, a unit. But we’ve still got to continue to get better, continue to help our defense out by putting points on the board. 

GAME 8 vs. NEW ENGLAND in London

Little more than two and a half minutes into their first venture across the pond, the strangers in a strange land - St. Louis edition - looked right at home in Wembley Stadium.

Taking the opening kickoff 80 yards on five plays in two minutes, 35 seconds, the Rams opened the game against New England with a scintillating 50-yard touchdown connection from Bradford to Givens.

Just like that, the Rams had a 7-0 lead and seemed to be ready for a dogfight against the defending AFC champions. But the first couple paragraphs of Sunday’s story turned out to be terribly misleading.

“You can’t ask for a better start to the game,” Bradford said. “The first time we touch the ball we go down and score. That’s exactly what we planned to do. Then it just all fell apart from there.”

Indeed it did fall apart as the Rams went from the highest of highs in those opening moments to the lowest of lows by the time the clock finally, mercifully hit all zeroes. The result was a 45-7 loss to the Patriots in a game that was never really close after the Rams took that initial lead.

The loss was the third in a row for the Rams and dropped them to 3-5 on the season as they headed into what seemed like a much-needed bye week.

“We just got beat in every phase of the game, got dominated,” Bradford said. “I don’t think there’s really any other way to put it.”

The defense was shredded by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his cast of weapons, the offense continued to shoot itself in the foot with costly miscues and even the special teams failed to do one of the basics.

Perhaps most maddening was the performance of a defense that seemed to make so many strides in the season’s first seven weeks. Even after a bit of a step back the previous week against high-octane Green Bay, the Rams defense seemed prepared to make that look like an exception to the rule.

Instead, that defense turned in its worst performance of the season. The Patriots posted 473 yards of total offense, went seven-of-12 on third down, converted their only fourth down attempt for a 1-yard rushing touchdown by back Shane Vereen and kept Brady spotless in the pocket.

Brady threw for four touchdowns, two each to tight end Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd and finished with 304 passing yards and a rating of 131.1.

In the unofficial pressbox statistics, the Rams had no sacks and didn’t even manage to register a quarterback hit. While Brady has a special ability to get rid of the ball quickly and identify blitzes to exploit, the complete inability to get near Brady left the Rams exposed.

“You have to make him feel uncomfortable,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s a combination of rush, coverage, it’s everything. It’s not just harassing him by sacking him, you have got to get your hands on him, knock balls down, just frustrate him. It was a long day for us. We weren’t able to do any of that.”

The next morning, Fisher and the Rams made the long flight back across the ocean to St. Louis, took a day or two to recover and return to practice before a weekend off for the bye week.

When they returned, things wouldn’t get any easier. How they would respond to having their backs against the wall would go a long way in determining how the season’s second half played out.

“This is a real test for our young football team, going into the bye week coming off a disappointing loss like this and we will find out a lot about ourselves and their confidence and see how they’ll bounce back,” Fisher said.

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