Five Takeaways: Rams Sweep Cardinals in 2017

Los Angeles improved its record to 9-3 on the 2017 season with its 32-16 win over Arizona on Sunday. There are plenty of elements to correct from the victory, but the game also represents the first time the Rams have swept the Cardinals in a season series since 2012.

With just four games left in the regular season, here are five takeaways from Los Angeles' latest victory.

1) Rams are winners

Yes, the club obviously won on Sunday. But in a larger sense, the Rams are winners because they've assured themselves of their first winning record since 2003. And it's all come in the team's first season under head coach Sean McVay.

"It means that the process is working," defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. "Coach talks about buying in and believing in what we're teaching. That's a testament to that."

"To get to the ninth win for a lot of the guys that have been here and to lock up a winning season — certainly we know it's a one-game-at-a-time mindset — but for some of those guys that have been here and been a part of it, very happy for those guys," McVay said. "And looking at what they've accomplished this year, very fortunate to be a part of it."

And because the Rams have gotten to nine Ws with four games left, there's a sense that the team has much more to accomplish in 2017.

"You are going to hear this a lot and it's probably going to bug you, but the standard has changed," offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said. "Just the outlook on how we play in games, there is no lax and we expect to play effectively every single play."

"Like I said, 9-3 is definitely better than 8-3. I'll say the same thing — 10-3 would be even better. I'm sure it feels even better," linebacker Alec Ogletree said. "So that was a big win for us. And, of course, it was in the division. So excited about it. But we've got a big challenge next week. We'll enjoy this one for today and then turn our attention to next week with Philly."

2) Punt/Sack/Return/Touchdown: A key sequence

Teams are often said to be at their best when they receiver key contributions from all three phases. That's what happened for L.A. early on in the third quarter with a sequence that helped the visitors maintain control of the game.

Up 19-13, the Rams had to punt from deep in their own territory after a three-and-out. But standing in his own end zone, Johnny Hekker booted a ball that bounced at about Arizona's 30-yard line and went out of bounds at the home team's 21. That play flipped the field.

Then defensive tackle Aaron Donald ended the Cardinals' drive before it could get going by sacking quarterback Blaine Gabbert for a six-yard loss on 3rd-and-5.

Returner Pharoh Cooper fielded Andy Lee's ensuing punt at the Los Angeles 40 and brought it 30 yards to the Arizona 30 — Cooper's fourth punt return of at least 20 yards in the Rams' last six games.

Six plays later, quarterback Jared Goff hit wide receiver Sammy Watkins on a crossing route in the red zone for an 11-yard touchdown.

"That was a big momentum shift right there in the game," McVay said of the sequence. "And to get back to a two-possession game was huge at that point."

Special teams, defense, special teams again, offense. Week in and week out, the Rams are displaying how important it is to get strong contributions from all three phases.

3) Speaking of Aaron Donald…

Yes, it can be somewhat mundane to talk about how excellent Donald is every week. But the defensive tackle reached a significant milestone with his 2.0 sacks on Sunday, which gave him 8.0 in 2017.

Check out the best photos from the Los Angeles Rams 32-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Donald is the NFL's first interior rusher to record at least eight sacks in each of his first four seasons since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. The only other players who have done it are edge rushers: Dwight Freeney, Terrell Suggs, Derrick Thomas, DeMarcus Ware, and Reggie White. Two of the players on that list — Ware and White — also played under current Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Last week, Phillips somewhat facetiously called Donald one of the players who has surprised him this season.

"[H]e's better than everybody and I didn't know he was better than everybody," Phillips said. "I thought he was good, but I didn't know he was better than everybody. But, he is. I'm being a little bit sarcastic, but he's such a tremendous player. You can't overlook how he plays."

Donald played 84 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps on Sunday, which is a pretty high number for any defensive lineman. But that's the amount of snaps he usually plays week in and week out. It speaks to his conditioning that his production is still so high.

4) Gurley keeps getting over 100

This has been another consistent storyline throughout the season, but running back Todd Gurley has emerged as one of the top offensive weapons in the league.

Sunday was his ninth game this season with at least 100 yards from scrimmage — and his third game of at least 150 yards from scrimmage. (The running back came one-yard short of 150 in a contest this year, too.)

With four games left, Gurley has 1,502 yards from scrimmage — already a new career high by 208 yards. In addition to his 939 yards rushing, Gurley has 563 yards receiving on 48 receptions.

According to NFL senior director of communications Randall Liu, Gurley and Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson are the only players in franchise history to have at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage and at least 10 touchdowns in the team's first 12 games of a season.

"[W]e always try to find ways to get Todd involved, whether it be through running it or in the pass game," McVay said Monday. "You see, when the ball's in his hands — you feel like he might take it every single time. But he's a special player. He continues to demonstrate week-in and week-out how important he is to our offense. And when Todd's having a good day, usually that's going to be good for our whole offense and for our team."

Quarterback Jared Goff also mentioned Gurley as a significant part of why the second-year signal-caller has been able to reach 3,000 yards passing with a quarter of the season remaining.

"I think you look at what Todd is able to do out of the backfield — that helps us on offense and in the pass game, especially on third-down stuff," Goff said. "It's tremendous, his ability."

5) Lesson learned in clock management

At the end of the first half on Sunday, McVay and the Rams had a situation where they could have potentially scored a touchdown. The offense was humming, efficiently driving down deep into Cardinals territory.

But as the Rams kept running successful plays, the clock was running, too. By the time L.A. used one of its two remaining timeouts, the club had only nine seconds left before the half.

McVay seemed disappointed in himself about the way the end of the half occurred when discussing it on Monday.

"Really those types of things are inexcusable and that's all on me," McVay said. "When you get in a situation where you gain the first down, if you had it over again — when Todd has the eight-yard run on 1st-and-10 [we] would've liked to have said, 'OK, let's go ahead and let it bleed down a little bit probably about 30 seconds we take a timeout on 2nd-and-2.' Now you give yourself a chance, still with another timeout remaining to say, 'Alright, let's run our best play right here, where if we get a first down. Now we can at least compete for a touchdown."

As McVay put it, the decision there did not cost the Rams at that time. But it's something the head coach knows he must correct going forward.

"We ask our players to be accountable, and that's a situation right there, where I've got to be better," McVay said. "You try to learn from your mistakes, certainly that was one and fortunately it didn't cost us, but those are the type of things that get you beat and I can't do that to our team. I've got to be smarter and learn from that.
"[That's what you're always trying to say, 'What would you do if you had it all over again?' It was just, I didn't handle that the right way and the way that you would handle it if we had it again would be like that."

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