TAMPA - St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger throws into the end zone thinking his wide receiver will cut the sideline route short and use a seven-inch height advantage in single coverage to snare the football.
Drew Bennett instead runs a fade directly toward the back pylon, allowing mismatched Tampa Bay cornerback Phillip Buchanon to intercept what becomes an under-thrown pass.
This was supposed to be the second coming of the "Greatest Show on Turf?"
Of the NFL's winless teams, only New Orleans is more disappointing than the Rams. The Saints, though, can avoid dropping to 0-3 by winning Monday night against Tennessee.
St. Louis is already there after Sunday's 24-3 road loss to Tampa Bay.
"We seemed to have a lot of those (mistakes)," said Bulger, who tried to take the blame for the miscommunication with Bennett. "I don't want to be standing here next week playing the 'What if?' game because we're digging a big, big hole right now."
More surprising than the size of that pit is how it was created. St. Louis has some of the NFL's top skill-position talent in Bulger, running back Steven Jackson and two wide receivers (Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt) with Hall of Fame-caliber statistics. The defense was the biggest area of concern entering the season.
Yet it's a punchless St. Louis offense that is proving a liability. The Rams' inability to score touchdowns after halftime or when reaching the red zone proved costly again Sunday as Tampa Bay (2-1) extended a 10-3 lead in the fourth quarter. Previous losses to Carolina and San Francisco followed a similar script.
"We had every chance to put all these teams away," Rams wide receiver Dante Hall said. "This is extremely frustrating."
Bulger had as many turnovers as the Rams had points, but he isn't completely responsible for Sunday's mess. There were more botched routes, dropped passes, suspect play calls and a three-of-12 success rate on third downs. Plus, the offense received little help from sloppy special teams play that included Jeff Wilkins missing field goals of 42 and 43 yards.
Jackson rushed for 115 yards on 30 carries but the Bucs never changed a cover-two scheme that deployed their safeties deep to prevent big plays. Of his 17 completions, Bulger's longest pass covered just 18 yards.
"Something needs to be corrected," Bulger said. "Trying only gets you so far. Maybe in high school and grade school it works. But in the NFL, nobody wants to hear about that."
Still, fixing the problems won't be easy. Three of the Rams' next four games are on the road against Dallas, Seattle and Baltimore.
By the end of that stretch, Bulger might not still be standing. An offensive line already without All-Pro left tackle Orlando Pace (shoulder/injured reserve) lost another starter Sunday when left guard Mark Setterstrom suffered a season-ending knee injury. Fittingly, Setterstrom was hurt blocking on a field goal attempt after a fourth-quarter Rams drive stalled at the Tampa Bay 7-yard line.
"I'm losing my offensive linemen every week it seems like," Jackson said. "Now it's getting to the point where I'm not concerned about my production. These are my friends as well."
Unlike last Sunday against San Francisco, Jackson didn't throw a sideline tirade late in the fourth quarter as the Rams unraveled. This week, it was tight end Randy McMichael who lost his cool.
After Bulger's ill-timed throw to Bennett was intercepted in the third quarter, McMichael began waving his hands and screaming "I'm open!" to a Rams assistant coach while leaving the field. He kept repeating the same message for several minutes while sitting on the bench.
When Bucs third-string running back Earnest Graham scored the first of his two fourth-quarter touchdown runs, McMichael bounced his helmet off the ground in frustration as shell-shocked teammates in the vicinity showed no emotion at all.
"Everybody is in a funk," McMichael said. "We're really out of sync. If we didn't have the talent, you could understand why stuff like this happens. But we have so much talent, especially on the offensive side, and our defense is fighting their butts off.
"The craziest thing about this is it's so many little things. The little things are getting us beat."