There are three phases to every football game: offense, defense and special teams. Often overlooked in the shuffle of competition is the importance of the latter phase, a phase that sees second- and third-string players who fought for roster spots in training camp take the field.
On this particular afternoon, the St. Louis Rams reminded football fans just how important these fringe players are to a winning franchise. Two relatively-unknown rookies, kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker, were the stars in a 19-13 win against the visiting Seattle Seahawks.
Zuerlein made all four of his field goals Sunday and became the first rookie in NFL history to make a 60-yard attempt. Hekker continued to show why he was nominated for NFL Rookie of the Week honors two weeks ago, averaging 39 yards per punt and even throwing his first career touchdown pass.
Seattle continued to produce offensively after an inspiring — and controversial — performance against the Green Bay Packers last Monday night. The Seahawks opened the game with an explosive drive, exuding the confidence that only a big win over Green Bay could give. Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson gained huge chunks of yards with his legs as well as his arm before Marshawn Lynch closed the drive with a bruising 18-yard touchdown run just under five minutes into the game.
As expected, Lynch and backup running back Robert Turbin produced on the ground with a physical approach, especially in the second half. Lynch finished with 118 yards rushing on 20 carries and tied for a team lead with four catches for 37 yards. Turbin was solid in relief with six carries for 45 yards.
The Rams responded on the next drive as Zuerlein booted his first field goal of the day, a 58-yarder with 5:03 remaining in the first period that was (at the time) a career-long and franchise-best feat.
After both teams traded punts, St. Louis put together another drive that saw the offense sniffing the end zone. A 3-yard touchdown run by Steven Jackson was nullified as center Robert Turner was called for holding.
What seemed like another innocent field goal attempt from Zuerlein turned into a touchdown as Hekker took the snap, stood and fired a pass to an isolated Danny Amendola standing on the right edge of the end zone to put the Rams up 10-7. Assuming the receiver Amendola went off the field, the Seahawks left him open for what would be the deciding score of the game and St. Louis’ only red-zone touchdown.
On the following drive, defensive end Eugene Sims effectively put pressure on Wilson during the two-minute drill, finding success by recording his first sack of the season at the :40 mark to force a punt. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford led the offense into field goal range just before halftime, allowing Zuerlein to knock through a 48-yard attempt as time expired.
Zuerlein, becoming more widely recognized as ‘Young GZ’, ended the opening drive of the second half with his historic 60-yard field goal in the Edward Jones Dome, breaking his own records set earlier in the game and increasing the Rams’ lead to 16-7.
Midway through the third, the duo of Lynch and Turbin were responsible for 54 of Seattle's 75 yards on a 13-play drive that took seven minutes off the clock. However — as was the case in the previous three weeks — the Rams’ defense came up big under pressure and gave the offense a chance to win, holding the Seahawks to a 31-yard field goal from Steven Hauschka.
Hekker's longest punt of the day came on the next Rams' possession. Backed up on their own 10-yard line after an ill-advised kickoff return, St. Louis got a 48-yard punt out of Hekker, making Seattle start on its side of the field.
Lynch and Turbin continued to punish the defensive backfield of St. Louis on the following drive, racking up 45 yards and allowing Hauschka to kick another 30-yard field goal for Seattle to close the deficit to three points. However, without the extra yardage provided by Hekker, the Rams’ D may not have had time or space to shore up and prevent the go-ahead touchdown.
St. Louis had a 7-minute drive of their own in the fourth quarter, but they had to rely on Zuerlein's last of four field goals after again failing to produce a touchdown in the red zone. Wilson had a chance to be the hero for the Seahawks for the second week in a row after a solid final drive, but the rookie forced a throw to tight end Anthony McCoy on Seattle's final drive.
McCoy slipped on his route, and the pass zipped into the arms of a waiting defender — Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher — to end the game. This was just one of three interceptions for Wilson, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 160 yards.
Amendola led the Rams in receiving with six catches for 55 yards, while Jackson gained 55 yards of his own on 18 carries to lead the ground attack. Bradford finished 16-of-30 for 221 yards and an interception. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis led the defense with eight solo tackles each, followed by outside backer Jo-Lonn Dunbar who had six.
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