After an offseason best summed up in one word – change – the Rams entered the first year of the Jeff Fisher era with raised expectations.
While Fisher and the team hoped to quickly establish itself as a contender in the NFC West Division, the outside expectations weren’t exactly in line with those set by the team itself.
Coming off a 2-14 season, the Rams overhauled their front office by making Fisher head coach and naming Les Snead as general manager. Fisher brought in a veteran, experienced staff and Snead brought in some forward-thinking, talented young personnel men to help makeover the roster.
When all was said and done, the Rams had turned into the youngest roster in the NFL with new faces all over the roster.
The Rams went 2-2 in the preseason before heading to Detroit to take on the Lions, a 2011 playoff team, in the season opener on Sept. 9.
GAME 1 at DETROIT
In a disappointing 27-23 loss to the Lions at Ford Field, Fisher and his team made it abundantly clear that for a game that had plenty of twists, turns and lead changes, the outcome boiled down to something quite elementary.
“It’s all about making plays,” Fisher said. “You know, you make plays at the end you win. They made them, we didn’t. We lost.”
For the better part of the 60 minutes on the clock, the Rams seemed to be the team making those plays. In fact, they made so many defensive plays in the first half that they entered the locker room with a halftime lead, leaving the sell out crowd in stunned silence.
As the defense produced big play after big play in the first half, the onus turned to the offense and special teams in the second half and the combination left the Rams poised to steal a road win to open the 2012 season.
“I’m really disappointed for our team because they did a great job preparing,” Fisher said. “I felt like they knew what to do. They had a great deal of respect for their opponent and we gave ourselves a chance to stay in the game and win at the end. We just couldn’t make the play.”
Ultimately, making the play could have been any number of opportunities that presented themselves in the fourth and final quarter.
Buoyed by three first-half interceptions, including one returned 31 yards by cornerback
After the Lions tied it on a touchdown run by back Kevin Smith, Rams kicker
Of course, that kick came following a clock operator error that went uncorrected and allowed the Lions to save a timeout.
Finally, with 10 seconds left, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford hit Smith for a 5-yard touchdown to steal the victory.
“It was a hard fought game,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “We did some really good things out there. We are a really good football team; we have just got to find a way to finish. Take nothing away from the Lions, they’re a high powered offense, they found a way to make a play. We didn’t make a play.”
GAME 2 vs. WASHINGTON
Heading to the Edward Jones Dome for the home opener, the Rams found themselves facing some kind of hardship over and over again against the Redskins.
Be it a game-opening fumble that became a Washington touchdown, an apparent back-breaking interception in the end zone, an injury to a key player or debilitating penalty after debilitating penalty, you could name a malady and the Rams dealt with it.
In the past, any sign of trouble, let alone the large pile mounting on the Rams’ sideline would have been enough to break their will. But the past is the past and the Rams are no longer interested in worrying about something that happened 12 seconds ago, let alone 12 months.
The result was a scintillating come-from-behind 31-28 win over the Redskins at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams evened their record at 1-1 while Washington fell to the same mark.
“It’s a completely different swagger,” running back
What Fisher and his coaching staff did in a short time in St. Louis was instill an attitude in the league’s youngest team that wouldn’t allow them to back down from any challenge. The familiar refrain of next play took on new meaning.
Witness what happened at the end of that victory. After coming up a play short of snatching a stunning win in Detroit on opening weekend, the Rams bemoaned the fact that they just didn’t get the job done when the chance presented itself.
In one week, the lessons learned from that game were evident on the field. With the ball at Washington’s 41 and the clock running down, back
Instead of the ball and a chance to run out the clock and win the game, suddenly Washington had new life. An opponent with the ball and a chance to drive for a winning touchdown in the final moments, sound familiar?
The Redskins quickly moved into Rams territory. On third-and-8, Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III fired to receiver Josh Morgan in the right flat. Morgan was tackled for a gain of 7, a yard short of the first down by Finnegan.
Finnegan, long known for his ability to agitate opponents, apparently pushed Morgan past his breaking point as the two became entangled after the play. Morgan took exception to Finnegan’s antics and fired the ball at the corner.
Out came a flag and a 15-yard penalty that forced Washington’s Billy Cundiff to try a 62-yard field goal to tie it. He wasn’t close and the Rams had sealed a win.
“It’s one of those things I guess he was just fired up and he didn’t make the right decision,” Finnegan said. “It was a chippy game all game. It’s a physical game on both sides and both defenses didn’t want to break. We were bending at times. Credit us for making a play at the end.”
Indeed, it was a chippy game that seemed to have very little in the way of control from the officials. In all, 18 flags were thrown and of those 18, six were of the 15-yard variety for unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness.
“I learned from a coach one time ‘Get to the edge and never hurt the team,’” Dunbar said. “You can get to the edge, look over the edge but never hurt the time. You can get to the line, just don’t cross it.”
In putting up 31 points, Bradford and the offense posted on of their best days of the year. He finished 26-of-35 for 310 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Receiver
GAME 3 at CHICAGO
Heading back on the road for another battle with an NFC North team in the Bears and their dominant defense, the Rams struggled to find any offensive traction but stayed in it until the fourth quarter behind a strong defensive performance.
In fact, the Rams were down just 10-3 at halftime and had the ball to open the third quarter despite what was shaping up as a dominant performance for Chicago.
After Zuerlein booted his second field goal of the day, this time from 46 yards, it seemed things were turning in the Rams favor as the deficit trimmed to 10-6. The feeling on the sideline was tangible.
“We felt great over there,” Bradford said. “We felt the momentum had shifted a little bit, especially when we cut it to 10-6. Our defense had been playing great and created a lot of stops. I think the next series they went three and out again and we felt the momentum shifting but we just couldn’t capitalize.”
Indeed, the Rams never quite found the thrust needed to kick into a higher offensive gear and ultimately fell to the Bears 23-6 at Soldier Field. The loss dropped the Rams to 1-2 on the season.
Even after Chicago had extended its lead to 13-6 on a field goal, the Rams had the ball and a chance to tie it up. As Bradford fired to the left for Amendola, the ball sailed a bit high and Amendola got a hand on it along with Chicago corner Tim Jennings.
Jennings’ deflection knocked the ball in the air where safety Major Wright grabbed it and cruised 45 yards for a touchdown and a 20-6 lead that was the Rams’ death knell.
“They got a bounce on an interception return for a touchdown,” Fisher said. “We needed things like that, we needed those kinds of bounces today and we didn’t get them. I was proud of the way we got back in it at 10-6. We got the ball moving a little bit and we felt good and then we gave up the interception for a touchdown and that was basically it.”
That the Rams had battled to stay in it the way they did was nothing short of a big credit to a defense that continued to make plays all day to keep the Rams in the game.
All told, the Rams defense limited the Bears to 274 total yards and came up with another takeaway as Finnegan got his third interception in as many games to start his Rams career.
But the offense never got untracked against a tough Chicago defense, putting up only 160 total yards of its own.
“Our defense did a good job,” Jackson said. “We as an offense did not help them at all. It’s unfortunate. We took a step back but we have to put this behind us and get ready for a divisional game.”
GAME 4 vs. SEATTLE
Returning to the site of their first win of the season back home, the Rams welcomed the Seahawks to town for their first NFC West Division game of the season.
The first few weeks it was obvious that Fisher and his coaching staff can help put the Rams in position to succeed but when it comes down to the final minutes, it’s always going to be on the players to make the play or two that run down the fine line between a loss and a win.
“I think it kind of goes back to that attitude change that we’ve talked about since Coach Fisher’s been here,” Bradford said. “He made a big emphasis about winning games in the fourth quarter, early. As far back as OTA’s he made it known that we were going to be in close games and that this team was going to be tough enough to go down and win them late in the game. Whether it be defense getting the stop or the offense going down and putting up points, and I think everyone’s really bought into that. We’ve been in some close games and we pulled two out and I think there is a big difference because in the past I’m not sure if we would’ve done that.”
For the second time in as many games at the Edward Jones Dome and in the Fisher era, the Rams did just that against Seattle as they found a way to make the play to pull out a 19-13 win against their hated division rivals from the Pacific Northwest.
The victory moved the Rams to 2-2 on the season and gave them a winning record in the NFC West Division for the first time since late in the 2010 season.
In pulling out the win, the Rams again came through in another heart stopping finish. Clinging to a 19-13 lead with Seattle driving in the final two minutes, the Rams found themselves in the same position they did in week 1 against Detroit, needing one more play to pull off a victory.
On a team that had many heroes against Seattle, it was perhaps most fitting that the player who delivered the needed play was cornerback
In week 2, that someone was Mulligan. On Sunday, it was Fletcher.
As Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson fired to the right for tight end Anthony McCoy with less than two minutes to play, McCoy slipped and the ball rifled right into the waiting arms of Fletcher. By no means was it a difficult catch but for Fletcher, it could have been after he missed out on a pair of makeable interceptions in the first two weeks.
This time, Fletcher squeezed it for his first interception of the season, sealing a Rams victory in the process.
“It feels good to get that off my back and to make a play like that for our team, it’s a good feeling,” Fletcher said.
In what would become a recurring divisional theme, the game against Seattle represented the first of six slugfests for the Rams within the NFC West. The defense again came up big, holding the Seahawks to 319 total yards and getting three interceptions from Wilson, including the first of cornerback
Special teams also played a key role in the win as Zuerlein booted four field goals including record breaking boots from 58 and 60 yards and punter Johnny Hekker threw a 1-yard touchdown to Amendola on a brilliantly executed fake field goal.
“Collectively, in the NFL, when one part of the ball or you might have a bad game or a bad half, we have to pick each other up,” Jackson said. “As we continue to grow throughout this season, we’re going to continue to lean on each other. As you see, in this young season and this young team, we take care of each other. Even special teams, we’re playing phenomenal right now.”