Coming off a much-needed victory over the Jaguars last week, the Rams had a chance to go into Houston on Sunday and maybe steal a win against a struggling Texans team. They could bring themselves back to .500 and, subsequently, back into the NFC West title conversation.
Instead, they were gouged repeatedly early on by the Houston offense. Texan’s QB Matt Schaub completed 15-of-21 passes for 186 yards before his premature exit in the third quarter. 10 different Houston receivers caught passes and routinely took advantage of the the Rams’ soft zone. RB Arian Foster ran rampant, accounting for 198 total yards (151 rushing) and continuing his 2013 resurgence. The Houston offense racked up 27 first downs and held the ball for 35:10. The league’s top-ranked defense heading into the week held Sam Bradford and co. to a measly 216 net yards, and…the Rams won 38-13?
Seriously, guys. That’s not a typo. The NFC West basement-dwellers finished one point shy of tripling up the Texans despite a first half in which Foster broke season-long runs twice and Schaub seemingly busted his recent slump. On Sunday the Rams looked like, dare I say it, a complete team. The offense was consistent, the play-calling was diverse, and the defense held steadfast to keep the Texans out of the end zone when it mattered. After an opening drive punt, the Texans were held to only six first half points despite drives of 74, 78, and 63 yards, respectively. Foster amassed 98 yards on only 10 carries at the break while Schaub went 11-for-14 for 153 through the air.
It was an opening half well-worthy of looking past the stat sheet, though. The Rams bucked their recent trend of first-half frailty and scored a first quarter offensive touchdown for the first time this season. After a Kareem Jackson pass interference call on WR Brian Quick put the Rams at the Houston 25, a screen pass to WR Austin Pettis and two hard-nosed Zac Stacy runs set up a comfortable two-yard play-action pass to Cory Harkey that even a fourth-string tight end couldn’t drop.
It turns out that, when spelled by an effective running game, the Rams’ offense can be as diverse and efficient as any in the league. All it took was the rookie Stacy using each of his 18 attempts to gain 79 crucial yards. On an afternoon where the St. Louis offense ran only 41 plays from scrimmage, the sense of meaning in each of Stacy’s carries was palpable. The 5’8 rookie was a force at the line of scrimmage and consistently burst through the interior of the Houston defense for crucial yards. His ability to test the interior of Houston’s defense worked wonders in opening up the offense for Bradford to complete passes to nine different receivers. The Rams still didn’t score that elusive first rushing touchdown of the season, but Stacy’s impact on the offense cannot be ignored. His status as the starter heading into next Sunday’s game at Carolina should be cemented.
More importantly, the Rams’ offense as a whole showed impressive balance and a dedication to the running game for a second consecutive week. After a James Laurinaitis fumble recovery, the teams traded field goals. It was then that the backfield took over. WR Chris Givens could have scored immediately on a dropped deep pass over the middle, but instead it would come down to Stacy and fellow RB Daryl Richardson. The pair accounted 54 of the team’s 60 offensive yards on the drive before Bradford connected on another two-yard touchdown pass to a tight end, this time being Lance Kendricks. Randy Bullock would then connect on a 35-yard field goal to make the half time score 17-6.
As much as the Rams’ offensive balance was the story of the first half, the defense and special teams asserted themselves equally in the second. After forcing a Houston punt, the offense cruised 80 yards yet again on the backs of Bradford and Stacy and took firm control of the game on a four-yard touchdown reception by WR Brian Quick. It was here that the other two phases of the game put it out of reach.
On the ensuing kickoff, safety Rodney McLeod smeared returner Keshawn Martin, poking the ball loose and into the arms of LB Daren Bates who returned it 11 yards for a quick score. It’s worth noting that the Rams’ special teams only accounted for one penalty on Sunday, an illegal procedure call that kicker Greg Zuerlein received upon kicking the ball out of bounds to start the third quarter. Baby steps for a unit that, as you know if you’re reading this column, has been under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks.
With the score 31-6, the Texans embarked on a long, albeit calamitous drive that would ultimately seal the game. On the ninth play of the possession, Schaub was sacked by DE Chris Long and knocked out of the game. The injury was met with cheers from some of the classier Texan fans, many of whom had been clamoring for a QB change after four straight weeks seeing Schaub throw interceptions for touchdowns. As it turns out, karma bought a ticket to Sunday’s game, and she didn’t like what she saw. Backup T.J. Yates entered the game and six plays later threw the game’s penultimate touchdown pass, an errant attempt into the arms of rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree, who returned it 98 yards for the score. An eerie twist of fate, indeed.
Schaub would not return to the game, and CB Janoris Jenkins would intercept Yates in the end zone on the very next drive. Garbage time came early in this one. The Texans would finally break the plane late in the fourth quarter on a one-yard Ben Tate carry, but the Rams would coast to a 38-13 victory.
Bradford (12-16, 117 yards, 3 TDs), despite a relatively limited number of attempts, showed an impressive command of the offense for a second consecutive week. Nine of Bradford’s 12 completions went to different receivers, and his numbers would have been even more inflated had Givens not dropped the deep ball mentioned above. This all in a game where he was largely kept off the field. In fact, Bradford only attempted five second half passes. Sunday’s game didn’t rely on him, but it hinged on his performance. While the backfield and defense played huge roles, Bradford’s consistency and decisiveness were the x-factor.
So to what does it all amount? The Rams showed a completeness in Sunday’s surprise throttling of the Texans. While a somewhat strong performance against the Jaguars may not have provided much context for gauging this team’s mettle, Sunday’s outing against the Texans may have done just that. Competition aside, the offense showed that it is capable of stringing together consistent performances in regards to play-calling as well as capitalizing on turnovers. The defense showed that it can take a few punches from some elite skill players and still flex back. The special teams showed necessary and encouraging signs of improvement from recent weeks.
Personally, here’s hoping it’s a trend upward. The division-leading Seahawks come to town in two weeks.