If there was any game that embodied how much can change throughout the course of an NFL season, it was yesterday’s 30-10 pasting of the visiting Rams at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals.
The Rams entered the game looking to rebound from a listless 23-13 loss at San Francisco, but were matched up against a resurgent Cardinals team riding the coattails of quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer’s return to form in recent weeks has turned Arizona from an NFC West afterthought to a serious contender for one of the remaining NFC Wild Card spots. Couple that with a defense that ferociously stuffs opposing runners, and the Rams’ work was very clearly cut out for them.
Hurrying the stationary Palmer and forcing the game onto the shoulders of running backs Rashard Mendenhall and rookie Andre Ellington would be crucial to a favorable Rams result, but the defense didn’t exactly come out swinging. In what was eerily foreshadowing of how this game would play out, Palmer was able to find wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald for a 19-yard gain on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Quickly and efficiently, Palmer was able to cruise down the field on Arizona’s opening drive and help put the Cardinal’s up 7-0 on a three-yard run from Mendenhall.
It was obvious heading into this game that the Rams had to at least attempt to get their running game going despite the Cardinals entering Sunday with the fourth-ranked run-stopping unit in the league. Early on, it appeared that they had a shot at returning to the offensive balance that sparked huge victories over Indianapolis and Chicago, yet evaded them last week against the San Francisco.
Head coach Jeff Fisher was willing to test the Arizona defensive front with running back Zac Stacy, and quarterback Kellen Clemens (surprisingly enough) came out firing. The Rams were able to lean a bit on play action, likely anticipating Arizona’s preparation for a heavy dose of Stacy, but the Cardinals would quickly figure it out. The Rams’ opening drive stalled at the Arizona 26, where kicker Greg Zuerlein was able to convert a 44-yard field goal attempt and make the score 7-3.
Both teams would trade punts as the game entered the second quarter, but the Rams were looking more and more lost on defense as Palmer’s ruthless efficiency was clearly becoming too much to handle. As the former Heisman Trophy winner led his team into the red zone yet again, the Rams got a surprise chance to swing momentum back in their favor and capitalize on a rare Cardinal mishap. From 1st-and-10 at the St. Louis 17, Palmer found Jim Dray over the middle. As the big tight end lumbered across the goal line, Rams safety Rodney McCleod jarred the ball from his grip. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins scooped up the fumble and looked to be headed towards his third defensive touchdown against the Cardinals. However, the play was whistled dead and a touchdown was called. To add to the confusion, defensive end Eugene Sims was called for a personal foul for shoving Palmer to the ground in an attempt to block for Jenkins’ return.
Several minutes of review followed, and the Cardinals’ touchdown was rightfully overturned. However, since Jenkins recovered the fumble in the end zone, the play was ruled a touchback, and a potentially huge play was negated. Sims’ penalty was still enforced, and the Rams would have to start from their own 10. Despite the blunder in officiating (to put it lightly), the Rams still had a shot to assert themselves back into the game. They’d have to grind for each yard against that Cardinal defense, however, and would settle for a punt after taking nine plays to travel just 38 yards.
From here, a tale of two quarterbacks ensued.
Palmer picked up exactly where he left off, slicing through the Rams’ soft zone where future Hall-of-Famer Fitzgerald was routinely able to find space. Palmer didn’t even register his first incomplete pass until there were just under two-and-a-half minutes to play in the first half. Coming into the game, it wasn’t insane to think that defensive end Robert Quinn and his linemates would feast upon Arizona left tackle Bradley Sowell, but to this point in the game they’d been relatively shut down. As the Rams’ defense finally got a decent push and appeared to have Palmer nabbed on 3rd-and-3 from the St. Louis 38, the wily veteran eluded Quinn and stepped up to find Fitzgerald for a first down. Toss in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Quinn (one of 11 penalties called on the Rams, totaling 90 yards), and two plays later the Cardinals were in the end zone yet again. Fitzgerald was the benefactor, this time from seven yards out, and Arizona would go into halftime up 14-3.
The Rams received the ball to open the third quarter, but, as I predicted in my preview, relying on Clemens’ arm to get them back into the game would prove costly.
On the second play of the drive from their own 21-yard line, Clemens’ errant attempt to tight end Jared Cook was snatched away by Cardinal linebacker Karlos Dansby and returned for a touchdown. Clemens would then take a sack in the end zone shortly thereafter – putting the Cardinals up 23-3 – and this game was all but out of reach. Rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin would provide the Rams’ sole big play, a 56-yard scamper ending at the Arizona four-yard line, but he’d roll his ankle on the play and did not return to the game. Stacy would cash in up the middle to open the fourth quarter to give the Rams a bit of life, but Clemens would soon toss another interception, and the Cardinal offense was able to milk the rest of clock while also adding another touchdown.
Palmer torched the Rams for 269 yards and a touchdown while completing 27 of 32 attempts. Paired with the 32 Cardinal rushing attempts, the perfect offensive sync proved too much for the St. Louis defense. Clemens went 16-for-27 while throwing two interceptions and taking four big sacks, including the safety. The two major facets of the game that the Rams needed to step up in order to have a chance were remarkably stifled. Rams running backs were only able to pick up 44 yards on the ground on 18 carries. As a result, the offense simply never got going. Conversely, the vaunted Rams defensive line was a relative no-show as well. Palmer only took one sack, registered by rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree. It was one of only two quarterback hits on the day, the other provided by Quinn. At this point, the Rams narrow 27-24 victory over the Cardinals in September is a distant, distant memory.
While the Cardinals have become one of the league’s hottest teams in recent weeks, the Rams face an entirely different level of competition next Sunday as they play host to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Whatever has caused this two week dip in form will surely need to be corrected, lest the Rams be further exposed by a legitimate Super Bowl contender and one of the league’s most elite offenses.