Updated 9:45 p.m. PT
GLENDALE, Ariz. — It wasn't the prettiest of victories, but Los Angeles will take it.
With a 32-16 win over the division-rival Cardinals, the Rams are 9-3 and have secured a winning record for the first time since 2003. And it happened with the defense and special teams providing a huge lift to the club.
The defense recorded two interceptions in the first quarter — one of which middle linebacker Alec Ogletree returned for a touchdown. And special teams continued to dominate under coordinator John Fassel, as the unit blocked a field goal and an extra point, Greg Zuerlein nailed four field goals, Johnny Hekker sent a punt 70 yards, and Pharoh Cooper had a 30-yard punt return.
"Defensively, to get two takeaways and Alec Ogletree turning the one interception into a touchdown was huge," head coach Sean McVay said postgame. "Special teams was outstanding — you look at some of the things Johnny did, Pharoh did an excellent job in the return game, getting the blocked field goal, a blocked extra point. Those guys continue to show up week in and week out."
L.A. also pressured Arizona quarterback Blaine Gabbert heavily throughout, recording six sacks and eight total quarterback hits. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald had 2.0 sacks — his first multi-sack game of the season — to give him a team-leading 8.0 on the year.
Though the Rams ran only 56 plays and had just 18 first downs, the offense did enough to sustain drives and win. Running back Todd Gurley continued his strong 2017 with 158 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches, including 33-yard reception on a screen play. It's the ninth time this season Gurley has finished with over 100 yards from scrimmage.
"Todd's a special player," McVay said. "As many ways as we can get the ball in his hands — good things have happened."
Notably, Ogletree left the contest in the second quarter and did not return with an elbow injury. Bryce Hager stepped in at middle linebacker to be the defense's signal-caller and filled in admirably.
"Bryce, to come in and fill in for a great player like Alec — kind of our leader, our captain on defense — I thought he did a very nice job," McVay said. "Got the calls, got the communication handled the right way."
"Bryce comes in at practice and practices for 'Tree' all the time so, and it's always a next-man-up philosophy for us," defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. "That's why we practice our guys that are behind, our two's and stuff in practice. And we critique them really hard because when you're one goes down, we need you to step up with no let off and that's what we did."
While Ogletree did flip into the end zone on his pick six, he said the injury did not occur on that play. The linebacker also said he's hoping to be ready as soon as next week, though that status will be fully determined in the coming days.
As has been the case many times this season, Los Angeles got on the board first against Arizona. A 25-yard pass from quarterback Jared Goff to wideout Cooper Kupp put the Rams in Cardinals' territory on the opening drive. And while the offense couldn't get much more, Zuerlein hit a 56-yard field goal to put L.A. up 3-0.
The score wouldn't stay that way for long, as safety Lamarcus Joyner intercepted Arizona quarterback Blaine Gabbert on the home team's first play from scrimmage. Gabbert threw deep off play action, but the ball was short of the intended receiver and landed in Joyner's arms. The safety then had a terrific return, going 46 yards to the Arizona 23.
It took Los Angeles six plays, but the offense found the end zone on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line. Goff hit rookie tight end Gerald Everett with a slant route, taking advantage of the size mismatch with Everett lined up against a smaller safety, Budda Baker.
Zuerlein, however, missed his first extra point of the season — wide left — to keep the score at 9-0.
Goff threw an interception later in the first quarter, but the defense was there to get the ball back — and more. On 3rd-and-9, Ogletree intercepted a Gabbert pass at the line of scrimmage, then returned it 41 yards to pay dirt — finishing the play by high stepping and flipping into the end zone. With the extra point, Los Angeles led 16-0.
But that's when the Cardinals began to claw their way back in it, gashing the Rams in the run game. With running back Adrian Peterson inactive due to a neck injury, Kerwynn Williams received the bulk of the carries and was the clear catalyst to the Cardinals' offense in the second quarter. On the strength of his runs, Arizona scored two touchdowns — a one-yard run by Elijhaa Penny, and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Gabbert to wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
L.A. blocked the extra point on Fitzgerald's touchdown, keeping the score at 16-13. Then Zuerlein tacked on a 20-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to give the Rams a six-point lead at the break.
Arizona began the third quarter on offense, but couldn't get anything going in the run game and the visitors held the home team to just three points in the second half. Though Williams had 76 yards rushing on eight carries in the second quarter alone — and 86 yards in the first half — he finished with a total of 97 yards.
"They were hitting us in our weak side, so we just kind of matched their personnel," Brockers said, adding the Cardinals were using two and three tight-end formations. "In the first half we weren't ready for them to attack us in that way but the second half we made our adjustments and cleaned it up."
The third frame also included a pair of key special teams plays that set the Rams up for their second offensive touchdown. Though Hekker had to punt from his own end zone after a Los Angeles three-and-out, he boomed the kick down the left side of the field, and it bounced out of bounds at the Arizona 21. Then Cooper followed a defensive three-and-out with a 30-yard punt return to set Los Angeles up at the home team's 30 for a net 10-yard punt.
"[T]o be able to kind of pin them deep in their own territory is why you certainly don't take a great player like Johnny Hekker for granted. Great coverage in that instance as well," McVay said. "The return game continues to be a bright spot for us. Week in and week out Pharoh has done a nice job for us and that was huge.
"That was a big momentum shift right there in the game," he continued.
Six plays later, Goff completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to wideout Sammy Watkins to give Los Angeles a 26-13 lead.
Though Arizona began the fourth quarter with a Phil Dawson 54-yard field goal, the visitors blocked the kicker's second field-goal attempt of the quarter. Defensive lineman Michael Brockers got his hand on the pigskin, which linebacker Cory Littleton recovered and took back 19 yards to the L.A. 42.
"Got some good knock-back on the snapper, got my hand up and got the ball," Brockers said, describing the play.
Zuerlein would nail 24- and 41-yard field goals to put the game on ice in the fourth quarter.
Los Angeles' victory means the club will maintain at least a one-game lead in the NFC West heading into Week 14. The Rams have also finished each of the first three quarters of the season at 3-1.
"It's huge," Goff said. "Going 3-1 in each one of them, and finishing this quarter off with another win is huge. Just our ability to kind of not get ahead of ourselves, just stay one game at a time. We have a really mature team and a lot of fight and grit to this team."
The Rams will be back at home next week for what is sure to be a significant matchup against the NFC East-leading Eagles.
"I think coming off a win now, we're going to enjoy this one with the 24-hour rule, and then get chance to look at them tomorrow," Goff said. "But they're a great team and obviously one of the best in the league for a reason. It will be a fun one at home. Hopefully it will be a good atmosphere and we'll be excited to get after it."
Check out in-game photos from the Rams' Week 13 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, AZ.