Sam Bradford completed only seven passes against the Arizona Cardinals in their first meeting, only eight in their second. But he'll take winning by two touchdowns apiece any day of the week. For that, he has his defense to thank.
After playing so soft over the last month that they could have been cast in a Charmin commercial, the Rams finally found their aggressive streak, and finally unleashed talented rookie Janoris Jenkins from the Tampa Two hell he's been living in. Jenkins, who drew primary coverage on Larry Fitzgerald for much of the day, intercepted two Ryan Lindley passes and returned them both for touchdowns. In so doing, he became the first Rams player ever and only the third rookie in NFL history to accomplish this double-down feat.
Meanwhile, Brian Schottenheimer finally found occasion to dust off his "ground and pound" playbook, one week too late, giving Steven Jackson 20-plus carries for only the third time this season. Jackson and the defense laid the table for a second-half shutdown effort that drained the drama from a close game and sent the Arizona fans heading to the exits early.
A tale of two halves
Beanie Wells, first half: 11 carries for 38 yards and two TDs.
Beanie Wells, second half: 6 carries for ten yards.
Ryan Lindley, first half: 17-24, 183 yards, 1 INT
Ryan Lindley, second half: 14-28, 139 yards, 3 INT
Rams RBs, first half: 10 carries, 41 yards, 4.1 ypc
Rams RBs, second half: 21 carries, 130 yards, 6.2 ypc
Sam Bradford, first half: 6-12, 146 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Sam Bradford, second half: 2-5, 59 yards, 1 TD
Bend-but-don't-break makes a reappearance
The Rams defense has not been a shutdown unit in terms of yardage all season, but when they were at their best, they were putting pressure on the passer and forcing key turnovers. While we didn't get the gaudy sack numbers this week that we did last time around — credit new LT Nate Potter's improved play on Robert Quinn for that — we were able to goad Lindley into a trio of rookie mistakes in the second half.
Of course, pressure is only half the equation. Blake Williams, who has been wearing the headset and calling plays without the title of "Defensive Coordinator" most of the season, finally started taking some chances with his defensive backs. Perhaps sick of seeing our guys get beat deep, Williams was willing to give up a constant eight- to ten-yard cushion to even the greenest opposing receivers, giving opposing quarterbacks easy targets and defeating his own pass rush.
The "Tampa Two" approach is one that has been around the league for a long time, and a fad that has largely died out, as opposing offenses have been able to counter it. Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com and Grantland.com wrote up an effective dissection of the Cover Two more than two years ago (showing how dated the defensive approach is). And the Cardinals happily took advantage of the Rams' tendencies by running a trips formation right out of the Smart Football playbook to set up the game's opening score. (More on this later in the week.)
However, starting in the second quarter, Blake Williams began varying his coverages much more effecitvely, mixing press coverage with zone and throwing different looks at Lindley and the Cardinals' offensive staff.
The result was a series of throws that only a rookie can make, giving the Rams three second-half turnovers, and taking superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald (0 second-half catches on six targets) completely out of the game.
Steven Jackson carries us home
I don't think it's possible to say enough about how Steven Jackson is running the ball right now. After lighting up the Jets (until being mysteriously shelved) for 6.2 yards per carry last week, and wrecking-balling the 49ers for 101 yards on 29 carries two weeks ago, Jackson put the Rams on his back once again to close out the win.
The Rams held the ball for nearly 10 minutes of the final quarter of play, with Jackson and Daryl Richardson getting the bulk of the work. Together they choked out the game clock and, with a Greg Zuerlein chip shot, put the game officially out of reach.
It was a dominant finish to a game that didn't exactly feel dominant through the first 30 minutes of play. It set a tone for a happy flight home, closing out the Rams' first road win and setting their division record at an impressive 3-0-1. That guarantees the Rams their first winning record in the NFC West since 2004.
Is there still progress to make? Yes. But for now, we'll take a win like today, where they finally proved they know how to separate themselves from a team that they should beat.