BY JIM THOMAS •
TAMPA, FLA. • The mere act of losing was nothing new. After all, there have been many losing locker rooms in recent years for the Rams — way too many. But in the immediate aftermath of this latest defeat, 18-17 to Tampa Bay, this may have been the quietest Rams locker room yet.
There was frustration. Fatigue. And the gnawing knowledge that they let one slip away. The Rams were oh, so close to a rare road victory, and a 4-3 record, with 1-5 Carolina coming to the Edward Jones Dome next Sunday. All things seemed possible with a 17-3 lead in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium.
But it all started to unravel with questionable clock management late in the second quarter, helping the Buccaneers tack on a field goal before the half. Then Steven Jackson, so strong running the football in the first half, was dinged in the neck and wasn't right for a while.
With backs Cadillac Williams and Kregg Lumpkin ineffective on the ground in the first half, the Bucs switched to rookie LeGarrette Blount in the second half. Blount, whom the Rams passed on when he was available via the waiver wire earlier this season, was very effective.
Slowly but surely, momentum — and the scoreboard — started tilting Tampa's way. A field goal here, a field goal there. The dagger came with just 10 seconds to play, when on second-and-goal from the St. Louis 1, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman rolled deep to his right to avoid pressure and found Williams wide open in the end zone.
Poof went the lead, the road victory and the chance to have a winning record for the first time in four years. (The Rams were 4-3 after seven games in 2006 and haven't been above sea level since.)
"This one is extremely sour right now," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "It's going to be a long plane ride. I'm sure each person is going to be thinking about every play they could've made to seal it or whatever."
"I gotta give (Tampa Bay) credit," left guard Jacob Bell said. "They ended up pulling it off, but we let that one slide. We let it out of our grasp. We've got to work on finishing games out. We get 'em down, we gotta keep 'em down."
In the process of letting the Bucs off the mat, the Rams once again left their offense in the locker room at halftime. Oh, the offensive players came out for the third quarter. But the production didn't.
In the first half, the Rams gained 189 yards, averaged 6.1 yards a carry, converted five of eight third downs and scored 17 points.
Second half? Ninety-six yards, two of six on third down, 3.3 yards a carry. And, oh yeah, zero points.
"We've escaped some games earlier in the year where we've struggled on offense in the second half, and the defense has carried us," quarterback Sam Bradford said. "Today it came back to bite us."
For the third game in a row, the Rams failed to score a touchdown in the second half, and they have only three points total — scored against San Diego — after halftime over that stretch.
"I don't know that I can figure that out," coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
You could make a case, although Spagnuolo denied it, that the play calling was too conservative in the second half against San Diego. Six of the first nine plays in the second half were handoffs in that game. That ratio was flipped against Tampa Bay, with six of the Rams' first nine plays passes to start the second half.
But the result was the same. The Rams gained only 21 yards in the third quarter Sunday, and managed only one first down.
"We were in the locker room (at halftime) talking about being aggressive, staying aggressive," Spagnuolo said. "I don't know if it was the effort. I don't know — maybe the heat. I know our defense was tired at the end. But I don't have an answer for the lack of points in the second half."
On a day when it was 84 degrees at kickoff with the temperature reaching 90 by game's end, the St. Louis defense was on the field a lot in the last two-plus quarters.
After Bradford's second TD pass of the day, a 2-yard toss to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, the Rams had a 17-3 lead with 2:59 left to play in the first half. Tampa, which had only 44 yards of offense at that point, had the ball for 20 minutes, 25 seconds — to the Rams 12:34 — the rest of the game.
The Buccaneers had a first down at the Rams' 49 at the 2-minute warning in the first half. Strangely, Spagnuolo helped keep time on the clock for the Buccaneers by calling timeouts after the next two plays. When Freeman scrambled for 16 yards and a first down to get the Bucs out of a third-and-16 predicament, they still had 1:26 left on the clock with the ball at the St. Louis 39.
"I tell you what, I'd do it again," Spagnuolo said. "Because obviously at the end (of the game) we needed more points. But it was being aggressive. We were trying to get the ball at the end. I had confidence in the defense that we'd get 'em off the field, and our offense would get another chance with the ball. Trying to get the offense another possession. It didn't work out."
No, it backfired. In a game the Bucs ended up winning by one point, they got three points on Connor Barth's 39-yard field goal with 24 seconds left in the first half. Which undoubtedly contributed to that long plane ride home.