Season in Review: Part Two

Posted Jan 26, 2011

After a 2-2 start in which the Rams dropped the first two games and followed with two rousing home victories, they headed into the second quarter of the season brimming with confidence and hopeful for a breakthrough to a winning record.

Game No. 5 - @ Detroit – Lions 44, Rams 6

Riding high on their two-game winning streak, the Rams headed to Ford Field against an up and coming Detroit team in search of its first win.

While the Lions found what they were looking for, the Rams had their worst showing of the year on a day in which everything seemed to just snowball despite a solid start.

“There’s a lot of things,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “All three phases had a hand in the disappointment of getting beat. Usually when that happens in all three phases, the score gets lopsided and it was.”

The loss snapped the Rams’ two-game winning streak and dropped their record to 2-3 on the season.

What did transpire came more from an early avalanche of miscues and missed opportunities that eventually snowballed into a lopsided defeat.

In last year’s win in Detroit, the Rams benefited from a fake field goal that set the tone for the game. On Sunday, it was a little special teams trickery that backfired that set the tone again, this time in favor of the Lions.

During meetings earlier in the week, Spagnuolo and special teams coordinator Tom McMahon discussed the possibility of catching the Lions sleeping right off the bat with and onsides kick should Detroit elect to receive first.

Hoping to set an aggressive tone, Spagnuolo decided Sunday morning to go for the gusto right off the bat.

“We thought we had something there,” Spagnuolo said. “I just thought it would be good for the team to be aggressive on the road.”

But Lions cornerback Amari Spievey recovered the kick at the Rams’ 41, giving Detroit prime field position to open its first drive. Making matters worse, linebacker David Vobora and running back Kenneth Darby were injured on the play.

The Rams defense committed two quick penalties before eventually holding the Lions to a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Those weren’t the deciding points but they were the first ones in a game the Rams would never lead.
Perhaps more devastating than the loss itself was the loss of top receiving target Mark Clayton early in the game. Clayton was taken off the field by cart and did not return for the rest of the season.

The result was a patellar tendon injury that ended Clayton’s season.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t big,” quarterback Sam Bradford said of Clayton’s loss. “I think everyone on this team knows what he does for this offense in the first four games of the season so to lose him that is definitely going to hurt.”

Game No. 6 – vs. San Diego – Rams 20, Chargers 17

After the tough loss in the Motor City, the Rams returned home to face one of the most imposing teams on the schedule. The Chargers came to St. Louis boasting the league’s top ranked offense and top ranked defense.

While San Diego didn’t have a record reflecting that type of production, it nonetheless presented the Rams with a tough challenge. But the Rams, with some help from a new but familiar face, jumped all over the Chargers in surging to a 17-0 lead and held on to win 20-17.

In improving to 3-3, Spagnuolo was most proud of how his team responded to the previous week’s letdown.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say yes,” Spagnuolo said. “You always wonder how your team will react from a setback like that. I’m real proud.”

Unlike the Rams’ other victories this season, Sunday’s had a little different twist. Whereas they were able to pull away and hang double digit losses on Washington and Seattle, Sunday’s game was in doubt until the game’s final moments.

Clinging to a 20-17 lead and with a defense on the sideline that was just about out of gas, Spagnuolo turned to star running back Steven Jackson and asked him to convey a simple message to his teammates.

After a first half in which the Rams moved the ball up and down the field, they had been kept in check by San Diego’s second-ranked defense for the bulk of the second half. With three minutes, 11 seconds to play and the Chargers with all of their timeouts and the two-minute warning, the Rams had to find a way to power up and push the Chargers around.

Two Jackson carries netted just 4 yards, bringing up a third-and-6 at the Rams’ 36 before the two-minute warning. Instead of throwing, the Rams stuck with their workhorse as he burst up the middle, cut to the right and picked up 9 yards.

Two plays later, he broke off a 12-yard run to the right side to put the game away.

“To be an elite running back, you have to be able to do that,” Jackson said. “I can’t take credit for that.  I think the offensive line did a great job of just answering to the call.  They knew and we knew that it was going to be a three-minute, scratch and claw kind of situation.  We had to stay in bounds and we had to get a first down or two.  And for everyone to answer, that’s just hats off to the offensive line.”

While Jackson and the offensive line put the game on ice, it was the defense that was making the plays to make the lead stand up.

The Rams defense held the Chargers to a season-low 287 yards of total offense and kept them to just four-of-13 on third down conversions.

Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe came up with an interception in the end zone in the first half to kill a Chargers drive.

Most of all, though, it was the relentless pressure the Rams were able to get on San Diego’s Pro Bowl quarterback, Philip Rivers, that set the tone for the defense.

All told, the Rams finished with seven sacks, including two each from Larry Grant, Chris Long and James Hall. It was the first time since Sept. 20, 1998 that three Rams had at least two sacks in a game.

And it was a local hero, in his debut performance who stole the show. Rookie receiver Danario Alexander out of Missouri, scintillated the crowd with an early 38-yard touchdown catch on his way to finishing with 72 yards on four catches.

After going through multiple knee surgeries just to get an opportunity on a NFL roster, Alexander was overjoyed by his breakout effort.

“It was basically saying, ‘I’m here,’ after all the things I’ve been through,” Alexander said. “And for that play to go just how it went, I kind of got emotional at that moment.”

Game No. 7 - @ Tampa Bay – Bucs 18, Rams 17

Following the surprising victory against San Diego, the Rams hit the road for the third time still in search of their first victory away from home.

After a dominating first-half performance in which they jumped in front 17-6, it appeared they would do just that. Instead, the offense bogged down in the second half and the Bucs pulled off a last second win on Josh Freeman’s 1-yard touchdown toss to Cadillac Williams for an 18-17 win.

The loss dropped the Rams to 3-4 but it was the way they lost that left them the most frustrated they’d been to that point in the season.

“It’s a whole new attitude with this team,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “Every game we go into we expect to win. So this game is extremely sour right now. I’ll just put it like that. It’s extremely frustrating.”

For the first 30 minutes, it seemed almost certain that those things were going to happen and that the Rams would be able to enjoy a major individual accomplishment from one of their own.

After coughing up a fumble that Tampa recovered and turned into a field goal for a quick 3-0 lead, the Rams went on a 17 unanswered point tear over the next 17-plus minutes.

Josh Brown booted a 25-yard field goal to tie it at 3 and Bradford followed with a 5-yard scoring strike to receiver Danny Amendola and a 2-yard strike to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui for his first career NFL touchdown.

Just like that, the Rams had a 17-3 lead and Jackson hit an important milestone.

A 3-yard gain up the middle with 12:38 to go in the first half catapulted Jackson past Rams legend Eric Dickerson into first place on the team’s all time rushing yards list.

On a day in which he rushed for more than 100 yards for the third consecutive week in posting 110 yards on 22 carries, Jackson couldn’t fully enjoy the scope of his newest record.

“It’s bittersweet,” Jackson said. “It’s something I have worked very hard for for a long time. It’s a goal I actually set as a rookie. So to achieve it, it means a lot. I just really wish we were able to cap it off with a win.”

Game No. 8 – vs. Carolina – Rams 20, Panthers 10

The Rams returned home for the final contest before the bye week with a Halloween showdown against Carolina. Of course, the scope of the day extended well beyond the Rams’ quest to get back to .500 before the bye.

On a day in which the Rams raised legendary receiver Isaac Bruce’s No. 80 to the rafters and honored him in a pre-game ceremony, it was only fitting that the Rams controlled the game from the beginning and never trailed on their way to a 20-10 win and a 4-4 record heading into the bye.

Adding to the emotions of Bruce’s day was the early-week passing of Spagnuolo’s high school coach and the loss of three key players to injury during the week of practice.

Still, the Rams found a way to overcome.

“For our football team to overcome that certainly is gratifying,” Spagnuolo said. “Any win is gratifying but if I reflect back on that week, we had a hard week and we fought through and got a win. It’s great.”

Leading the charge was a dominant performance by an ever-improving defense. That unit allowed just 201 yards of total offense, with 96 of those yards coming late in the game and the Rams holding a big lead.

Of those yards, only 25 of them came on the ground, as the Rams defense answered the challenge from a poor tackling effort last week by running to the ball and shutting down Carolina to the tune of 1.5 yards per attempt on 17 tries.

The performance against the run was the second best by a Rams team since they moved to St. Louis in 1995 and the best since they allowed 31 yards on Nov. 11, 2001.

“We just had to do what we expected ourselves to do,” end Chris Long said. “We looked up in the third quarter and saw that they had 20 yards rushing or whatever, and we weren’t surprised.  That’s what we need to expect out of ourselves.”

In making the Panthers one-dimensional, the Rams were able to ratchet up the pass rush with three sacks and seven quarterback hits. They also were able to coerce the Panthers into turnovers, an area the Rams had struggled in recent weeks.

All told, the Rams generated four takeaways, gave none away and turned those takeaways into 10 points, which made for the final margin.

“When you get them thrown to you, you have got to be able to catch them,” Laurinaitis said. “It seems pretty simple or common sense but you saw a week ago we had a couple thrown to us and we didn’t catch them. So today it was good we did and it’s something we practiced and we need to keep doing that.”

As Carolina repeatedly stacked the line of scrimmage to stop running back Steven Jackson, who finished with 59 yards on 23 carries while playing through a broken finger, the onus fell on Bradford to make enough plays to win the game.

The rookie signal caller shouldered plenty of blame after the game against the Bucs but rebounded strong with a 25-of-32 for 191 yard, two touchdown, no interception performance. His rating of 112.4 was the best of his young career.

“It says a lot about him,” Spagnuolo said. “We felt that way about Sam right from the beginning. He’s a competitor. For only being in the league eight games, I can say he’s a pro. Normally you come in this league and learn how to be a pro but for some reason Sam knew that already. He continues to learn…but he’s got it right.”