The most memorable play of the game wasn't the one that won the game, but it was an emblem of so many things.
The St Louis Rams' dangerous new weapon, Jared Cook, came open in the seam with acres of green in front of him. And as he will do as often as he can, Bradford found him with the football. It was going to be that rarest of things for the Rams: an easy score created by an athletic mismatch. But of course, nothing comes easy for the Rams.
Tyrann Mathieu outsprinted Cook (and his own 40 time) to race madcap diagonally across the field and punch the ball out of Cook's hands.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians on Mathieu's forced fumble: "It was one of the best plays I have ever seen at this level. It was all out hustle."
— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) September 9, 2013
For the Cardinals, the play gave them the confidence to know that they could go toe to toe with a much-improved Rams team in their own house. The Cardinals, then 4-0, were blown out here on primetime television a year ago, 17-3, a loss that inspired a 1-11 finish and a wholesale housecleaning. Said Chris Long, after Sunday's game: "They’re a lot better ball club than they were last year, and it showed. We’re going to have to see them again, and we’re going to have to play a lot better to beat them next time."
For the Rams, it was just another obstacle they would have to overcome before they could prove to their fans, and themselves, that they are a team separated from its mistake-filled past. What they have proven, though, is that they now have the talent to overcome its mistakes.
"In the past, we had to play pretty close to perfect to win a game, especially a game like this," said Sam Bradford after the game. "We blew so many opportunities today."
Those opportunities – two possessions inside the ten yard line that turned into field goals and Cook's goal line fumble – turned a possible 21 points on the scoreboard into six. Subtract Bradford's tipped pick-six (his one egregious mistake on the day), and you have the difference between a win and a convincing win.
"I think it shows we’ve got a lot to correct," said Bradford, "but with the guys we have in this locker room now there’s no doubt that we can overcome that."
Working The Memory Banks
From my perch in the stands, several plays stood out from yesterday's game, both good and bad. More will appear when we go back to the tape, but these were memorable enough that I carried them home with me.
- Janoris Jenkins getting turned around by Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone. Tim Shields pointed out the technical flaw to me – Fitzgerald ran a fine route, but Jenkins took himself out of the play by flipping his hips to the wrong side. He lost the ability to play both the receiver and the ball, and had to defend with his back to the QB. Jenkins redeemed himself with a pass breakup in the end zone later, but if he's going to own the left side of the field, he needs to be drilled ruthlessly on technique on simple end zone routes like this.
- Cortland Finnegan getting boxed out by Michael Floyd for a deep gain. Rather than try to outrun Finnegan to gain "separation," Floyd basically rode Finnegan's hip all the way down field, then expertly flipped around to put his body between Finnegan and the ball to give Carson Palmer a huge target. I liked Floyd a lot in the 2012 draft, and this was an outstanding play. Meanwhile, Finnegan's Island has a lot more in common with Gilligan's than with Darrelle Revis'. "Everyone including myself wanted to play better today," he said after the game.
- Daren Bates nearly decapitating Javier Arenas on a 2nd-quarter kickoff return. Bates is one of the Rams' celebrated undrafted free agents, and he has all the makings of a special teams demon. Bates' hit inspired a swarming performance in coverage that had fans openly begging the Cardinals to try returning kicks. They only did once more, and fumbled on the try at their own 10 yard line.
- Chris Givens working back down the stem to bail out his quarterback. Givens was nearly erased from the stat sheet by Patrick Peterson, who shadowed him on both sides of the field. But Bradford was fine with that: "It just opened everything up underneath." However, scrambling to his right away from a huge pressure on a 3rd and 6, Bradford was forced to test Peterson. Givens made a heads up play to recognize that his quarterback needed him to break off his route and work back upfield — he did that at full speed, giving Bradford a target and Peterson no chance to make any play other than a tackle. The 12-yard completion extended the drive, which ended in the Rams' first touchdown.
- Sam Bradford finding Tavon Austin in motion to set up the 4th-quarter touchdown. The Rams tried a lot of things with Tavon, and not many of them worked especially well, at least as far as unleashing the "lightning in a bottle" that we've been told to expect. But this play saw the Cardinals' defense a step slow, and Sam recognized that immediately for a quick strike and a 14-yard gain to set up in the red zone for must-have points.
- Brian Quick making a big boy catch two plays later. Though replay correctly showed Quick's knee grazing the grass, the catch was exactly the kind of play the Rams expect him to make – contested catches in the toughest part of the field. And you saw him fight through contact with a nose for the goal line, very nearly scoring.
- William Hayes unleashing two unholy pass rushes to close the game. Robert Quinn deserves all the accolades he'll receive for a season-opening 3-sack performance. (He now has six in three games against the Cardinals.) But Hayes nearly equaled him with less than half the playing time, with a sack, a quarterback hit, and three tackles for loss. With fresh legs and hammer hands, he simply mauled the Cardinals right guard to take Palmer down with 24 seconds left and effectively extinguish the Cardinals' last gasp of hope. One snap later, he did it again to force a dump off throw that the Rams snuffed out to run out the clock.
A Zen Riddle
Does a quarterback make his offensive line, or does the offensive line make the quarterback?
Bradford just completed his third consecutive game as a pro without taking a sack, which is the longest such streak in his career. But as well as his line did in protection, he did just as well to bail them out by making quick reads and sensing the pressure before it got to him. Both are areas that he has long been dogged for – both are areas he showed considerable improvement on Sunday. But the Rams QB is just as quick to redirect any credit to the five men up front.
"I can't say enough about those guys up front," said Bradford. "They played outstanding today, and I think it shows that we've taken leaps and bounds from where we were last year." In particular, he called out Scott Wells for his role in recognizing the defense's alignment and calling out protections. "The Cardinals threw some looks at us, especially on third down, that we hadn't seen in the preseason and those guys didn't flinch at all. They kept doing their jobs, kept me protected, and allowed us to make some plays towards the end of the game."
Extra commendation goes to Jake Long and Rodger Saffold, who both got dinged up and had to come off the field. Each made a rapid return and finished out the game to keep Bradford's uniform clean.
Next Up: The Atlanta Falcons
Two quick stats on our upcoming opponent worth noting:
#Falcons are 33-7 in the Georgia Dome & 17-3 the week after a loss under Mike Smith.
— Knox Bardeen (@knoxbardeen) September 9, 2013
Falcons OL got beat for pressure on 21 of 42 dropbacks. Worst in league. By comparison Bengals beaten 3 times on 34 passing plays.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 9, 2013