The difference between professional sports and lower levels is competitors get paid (legally) not just to compete, but to win.
Bottom-feeding teams and athletes that face top-notch opponents either anticipate a season-altering upset victory early or playing the role of spoiler late. Fortunately for the St. Louis Rams, the former instance became reality following a 17-3 win over visiting NFC West-foe Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals (4-1, 1-1) came into the matchup undefeated through the first quarter of an NFL season for the first time since 1974, a season that, ironically, took place while the franchise was still in St. Louis. In a strange sense of cosmic comeuppance, the Rams (3-2, 2-0) provided the city relief for the past and promise for the future. The win was St. Louis’ first against its former franchise at home since 2005, and gave its current franchise its first winning record since 2006, with all three wins coming at the Edward Jones Dome.
Defense ruled the night, as the Rams tied a franchise record with nine sacks of Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb, giving the Cardinals a total of 17 allowed in the past two games. Three of those sacks were courtesy of defensive end Robert Quinn, who now has six on the year. Janoris Jenkins also had a career game, although just five games in. The rookie cornerback notched four tackles on the stat sheet, but his performance against elite receiver Larry Fitzgerald couldn't be described with numbers.
The game started quickly, as rookie receiver Chris Givens took the opening kickoff 36 yards to the Rams’ 31-yard line. The offense took it from there. Sam Bradford threw two consecutive passes off of play-action fakes, the first a 14-yard completion to a leaping Brandon Gibson down the right sideline, followed by a 44-yard bomb to Danny Amendola. Amendola had to turn and fight for the pass, catching it with one hand behind an interfering Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson.
The most encouraging sign of the drive was the finish. Starting on the Cardinals’ 11, Bradford was flushed out left and fired a dart to tight end Lance Kendricks for the touchdown as Kendricks fell out of bounds, arguably his best throw of the drive. The three completions were almost half of Bradford's total output, however, as the young QB finished 7-of-21 for 141 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Bradford's final stat line wasn't all his fault, as receivers continued to drop big passes and pass protection broke down at times. To complicate matters, Amendola laid out for an incomplete pass at the 7:47 mark in the second, landing awkwardly on his shoulder. He was seen throwing his helmet against a wall as he walked down the tunnel, and it was later reported that he suffered a broken collarbone.
The Cardinals’ first drive was a little more methodical. Kolb and running back Ryan Williams opted to take between five and 10 yards at a time from St. Louis, but — in what has become typical Rams’ fashion this year — the defense held as their back neared the wall, making kicker Jay Feely settle for a 35-yard field goal to make the score 7-3 with 3:15 remaining.
The Rams’ second drive was a bit discouraging in comparison to the first, going three-and-out. After starting at their own 8-yard line on the next possession and getting the same result, Johnny Hekker blasted a 68-yard punt out of bounds to start the Cardinals on the 14.
The rushing attack wouldn't be an issue for the Rams this week. The defense held Williams to 33 yards on 14 carries before St. Louis safety Darian Stewart, who played in relief of Quintin Mikell, came downhill to deliver a ferocious, legal hit of Williams in the fourth quarter, knocking him out of the game with a concussion. Mikell left the contest much the same way. He took a knee to the helmet midway through the second quarter and seemed to lose movement in his arms and legs, but walked off the field under his own power minutes later.
On the play following Mikell's injury, Quinn and defensive tackle Kendall Langford met at the quarterback for the sack. Jenkins knocked down two passes to force another Feely field-goal attempt, which he missed.
Hekker got lucky with under two minutes left in the half. The Rams’ punt coverage allowed Peterson to bring the ball all the way back to their own 47-yard line, but an offside penalty on the Cardinals gave Hekker another shot. The rookie from Oregon State then punted another rocket out of bounds to neutralize Peterson, this time a 57-yarder to Arizona's 6-yard line.
Rams’ linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar flew in for a sack up the middle on second down, but a shot to Kolb's head by Langford on the following play drew a penalty, giving the Cardinals a new set of downs. With Arizona marching, Jenkins broke on a hitch by Fitzgerald to stop the drive, dropping a potential interception after Fitzgerald raked his facemask and escaped a penalty.
St. Louis running back Steven Jackson found a rhythm about five minutes into the third quarter. After throwing exclusively to open the game, Jackson picked up five carries for 33 yards, the last of which was a third-down conversion to the Cardinals’ 20. In an ill-timed change of pace on 3rd-and-5, Bradford fired a pass to the back of the end zone towards rookie Brian Quick. The pass was too far inside and, consequently, intercepted by Arizona's Peterson.
Even with the offensive woes in a one-score game, St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher continued taking a risk with pressuring Kolb. The Rams forced a punt with yet another shared sack by Quinn, this time with middle linebacker James Laurinaitis who also finished the night with 10 tackles.
Then came the dagger. Bradford threw a beautiful 51-yard pass to Givens down the left sideline for the rookie's first career touchdown with 11:49 remaining in the game. Givens blew past cornerback Greg Toler with a sharp double move to push the lead to 17-3, using the speed that made the Rams draft him in the fourth round out of Wake Forest.
Nevertheless, Kolb drove the Cardinals down the field, spreading the ball out to six different receivers and moving the ball to the Rams’ 9. With under six minutes remaining in the contest, the Rams’ defense repeated its bend-but-don't-break effort from their first drive, this time stopping the Cardinals on four downs. Fitzgerald opted to run a slant pattern against Jenkins on fourth down, and the corner closed in quickly on the tackle.
After a three-and-out by the offense, St. Louis’ defense again found its resolve. Cortland Finnegan got caught shoving a Cardinals’ receiver out of bounds on a pass play to give the Arizona a fair shot at a comeback. After making their way inside the Rams’ 10 for the second straight drive, the Cardinals and Kolb were stifled on four downs again, with Finnegan recording the sack on fourth down.
Immediately following another St. Louis three-and-out, Quinn notched the team's final sack of the night (his third) on first down, poking the Rams’ first forced fumble of the year into the hands of fellow defensive end William Hayes to end the game.
Fisher made sure the feisty St. Louis defense was in Kolb's face all night, and it certainly limited his production. The former Philadelphia Eagle finished the evening a not-too-shabby 28-of-50 for 289 yards, but was hit virtually every time he dropped back to pass. Fitzgerald hit his marks, catching eight passes for 92 yards. However, he made no trips to the end zone like the top receivers before him (Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Chicago's Brandon Marshall).
Jackson went over 60 yards rushing for the first time this year, carrying the ball 18 times for 76 yards. Gibson added three catches for 33 yards. Finnegan recorded 10 tackles, while Dunbar had eight.
Be sure to check out other great articles at Sports Media 101.
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