The St. Louis Rams' and the NFC West's return to primetime relevance had more than its share of ugly moments. Particularly as our offense coughed and wheezed through a twenty-minute stretch of the game clock where they gained a mere 35 yards on seven consecutive drives, and our defense became magnets for an inexplicable shower of yellow flags. There was even a Martzian moment where Jeff Fisher was forced to call timeout on a punt.
But the hallmark of this team is that they seem to not even notice adversity when it hits. Or perhaps it's better said, particularly by the irrepressible Rams defense, that when adversity hits, they hit back. And hard.
This is a direct response to Jeff Fisher's attitude as a coach. He is a veteran guy, but not a Tom Coughlin-style control freak. Marc Bulger, speaking at a pre-game tailgate at a Courtyard Marriott downtown, remarked on it before the game, remembering back to a Rams-Titans week of scrimmaging before a preseason game. Fisher keeps his teams almost comically loose in practice, to the point that it looks like "lack of discipline" to an outside observer. But he has them ready to run through a brick wall on gameday.
Sam Bradford's stat line will get a lot of attention this weekend. 7 for 21 is what people will remember. And they'll think "God, our quarterback sucks!"
While it's true that he threw some questionable balls, he also made some brilliant plays downfield that did not get rewarded, for one reason of another, with catches. Danny Amendola catches a brilliant one-hander behind Patrick Peterson on the game's opening play, but let two more come off his hands and touch the ground. (He apparently broke his collarbone on the last one, so we might give him a bit of a pass there.) And Brian Quick's route to the end zone on the pass that got picked off looked so unsteady that I would have pulled him over midway through and given him a breathalyzer test.
Lance Kendricks, Brandon Gibson and Chris Givens had balls come off their hands as well, but here's the part of the story that people should remember: Bradford was able to make big plays with all three when he had to. He got Kendricks and Givens for touchdowns, and Gibson for a huge first-down conversion that led to our last score.
As Sam Bradford has gotten more comfortable, Brian Schottenheimer has introduced more big plays into the Rams' offensive playbook. And with those big plays come bigger risks – the risk of getting hit, as he did on the bomb to Amendola. The risk of throwing an "anticipation" throw before the WR breaks to the ball, and having that receiver not be able to finish his route (or just plain fall down). And sometimes they come with some unsightly numbers that would make Mark Sanchez blush.
But also, this: Sam tossed two scoring throws, and averaged a gaudy 20 yards per completion. This may be a west coast inspired offense, but these aren't dinks and dunks. Shurmurball this ain't.
The Rams' offensive struggles obviously placed a heavy burden on the defense. Sam's poor first half (after the opening drive) left 20 minutes of game-clock for the defense to cover. And our defense was more than up to the task.
One field goal, that was all the Cardinals got out of twenty minutes of first-half possession time. The Cardinals tried to respond to the amped-up crowd by playing possession-ball, mixing in the runs and short passes that Kevin Kolb, game-manager, excels at. Our defense's response was to make the ballcarrier pay for every play. Jo-Lonn Dunbar made multiple jarring hits, including one of four first-half sacks. Janoris Jenkins made multiple eye-popping plays on the football to take catches away. Darian Stewart came in the game late and erased Ryan Williams on an open-field hit.
And… Robert Quinn had a his long-awaited breakout performance on national TV. Three sacks, two TFLs, three quarterback hits, a pass batted down, and a forced fumble.
All told, the Rams sacked Kevin Kolb nine times, not counting the two that were taken away by highly fishy penalty flags, and knocked him to the turf another eleven times. Combine this with the pounding he took from Cameron Wake and the Dolphins on Sunday, he might spend the next ten days in the cold tub.
But Kolb was not the only one feeling the punishment. Williams was knocked out of the game, and the inhumanly sure-handed Larry Fitzgerald let a ball fall to the turf when he saw Dunbar steamrolling toward him. When the Cardinals were mounting their last, desperate gasps at denting teh scoreboard, they had no more trustworthy playmakers for Kolb to turn to. It was fitting that the game essentially ended with him holding onto the ball, wondering what to do.
Ultimately, what got the Rams' offense back on track was some tried and true Fisher-ball. You have this big old running back, starving for carries. You have a lead, and the clock is just as much an opponent as the other team (and the refs). MIght as well run the ball down their throats until they blow the final whistle and you get to go shake the other coach's hand.
Steven Jackson's carries by quarter: 1, 4, 5, 8. And then, after the defense was suitably softened up, Bradford hits Chris Givens in stride for a 51-yard bomb. Ballgame.
The big news before the game was that the Rams had agreed to let Steven Jackson out of his contract after this season, as they would have been forced to do had he reached certain performance markers. Some have speculated that the Rams are letting him test the waters of free agency, but have full intention of bringing him back. Others see the NFL trade deadline looming, and wonder if he's being actively shopped.
Fans in both camps can agree on one thing after tonight's game: Jackson has plenty of leg left. His speed is not what it was, and it never will be, but he is still capable of moving the pile and moving the chains, even against a very good defense like this one. But we also see Daryl Richardson waiting in the wings (and his 16-yarder was very nearly broken for something much bigger), and can't help but wonder what this kid could do with a long look.
But that's for another day. For now, Rams fans get something entirely new: a victory Friday. Enjoy it.