Monday, September 17, 2012
by Nick Wagoner
Time and again in Sunday’s home opener against the Redskins, the Rams found themselves facing some kind of hardship.
Be it a game-opening fumble that became a Washington touchdown, an apparent back-breaking interception in the end zone, an injury to a key player or debilitating penalty after debilitating penalty, you could name a malady and the Rams faced it.
In the past, any sign of trouble, let alone the large pile mounting on the Rams’ sideline Sunday would have been enough to break their will. But the past is the past and the Rams are no longer interested in worrying about something that happened 12 seconds ago, let alone 12 months.
The result was a scintillating come-from-behind 31-28 win over the Redskins at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams evened their record at 1-1 while Washington fell to the same mark.
“It’s a completely different swagger,” running back
Steven Jackson said. “It’s just amazing. I know it’s only week 2 and we’re 1-1 but it’s just a whole different atmosphere. I can’t thank Coach Jeff Fisher enough for what he’s done and what he’s doing with us.”
What Fisher and his coaching staff have done in a short time in St. Louis is instill an attitude in the league’s youngest team that won’t allow them to back down from any challenge. The familiar refrain of next play has taken on new meaning.
Witness what happened at the end of Sunday’s victory. After coming up a play short of snatching a stunning win in Detroit last weekend, the Rams bemoaned the fact that they just didn’t get the job done when the chance presented itself.
In one week, the lessons learned from that game were evident on the field. With the ball at Washington’s 41 and the clock running down, back
Daryl Richardson, who replaced an injured Jackson in the first half, coughed up a fumble that the Redskins recovered.
Instead of the ball and a chance to run out the clock and win the game, suddenly Washington had new life. An opponent with the ball and a chance to drive for a winning touchdown in the final moments, sound familiar?
The Redskins quickly moved into Rams territory. On third-and-8, Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III fired to receiver Josh Morgan in the right flat. Morgan was tackled for a gain of 7, a yard short of the first down by cornerback
Finnegan, long known for his ability to agitate opponents, apparently pushed Morgan past his breaking point as the two became entangled after the play. Morgan took exception to Finnegan’s antics and fired the ball at the corner.
Out came a flag and a 15-yard penalty that forced Washington’s Billy Cundiff to try a 62-yard field goal to tie it. He wasn’t close and the Rams had sealed a win.
“It’s one of those things I guess he was just fired up and he didn’t make the right decision,” Finnegan said. “It was a chippy game all game. It’s a physical game on both sides and both defenses didn’t want to break. We were bending at times. Credit us for making a play at the end.”
Indeed, it was a chippy game that seemed to have very little in the way of control from the officials. In all, 18 flags were thrown and of those 18, six were of the 15-yard variety for unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, himself a player who specializes in feisty, said it was important for the Rams to stay under control.
“I learned from a coach one time ‘Get to the edge and never hurt the team,’” Dunbar said. “You can get to the edge, look over the edge but never hurt the time. You can get to the line, just don’t cross it.”
That the Rams were even in position to pull off the late win seemed amazing enough considering what the way things started. On the first play from scrimmage, receiver
Danny Amendola lost a fumble that cornerback Josh Wilson returned 30 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Washington lead.
Sam Bradford didn’t hesitate to go back to Amendola, who responded with a career day, 15 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown.
“That was not easy to do,” Fisher said. “But Danny, he was determined to right that wrong.”
Bradford himself faced a tough moment when he threw an end zone interception to linebacker London Fletcher with the Rams driving for a potential leading score.
All the Rams did in response was get a blocked punt from tight end
Matthew Mulligan on a play that was designed to be a return to get it right back for the offense at Washington’s 24.
“He got it on his own, because we had a return (on),” Fisher said. “We didn’t even have a rush. He sensed something. It’s good you get an experienced player like that who can sense the protection issue and take advantage of it. So, yes ‘Mully” is ‘Mully.’ Mully’s always going to put himself in the right place at the right time to make a play.”
Four plays later, Bradford rewarded Mulligan with a 1-yard touchdown pass to give the Rams the lead for good.
“To be honest, he got out of there too fast,” Mulligan said. “My thing is they put me in there to hold guys up and he didn’t block me long enough, so I just kept going and he kicked it right through me. So I was happy to get there and be in the right spot.”
Despite losing Jackson (groin) and left tackle
Rodger Saffold (knee) to injuries early in the game, Bradford and the offense never missed a beat.
That group rolled up 452 yards of total offense, 23 first downs and was seven-of-12 on third down conversion attempts as they overcame a 21-6 second quarter deficit.
Bradford, in particular, was on top of his game as he finished 26-of-35 for 310 yards with three touchdowns and that one pick for a rating of 117.6. He threw touchdowns to Amendola, Mulligan and wideout
“He was dialed in all week and certainly dialed in today,” Fisher said. “He and (offensive coordinator Brian) Schotty were on the same page. This was a difficult defense…Sam had some answers. He knew where to go with the football for the most part.”
The defense, meanwhile, was doing its part to keep Griffin in check. He was able to shake loose for two touchdown runs and a 68-yard touchdown pass to receiver Leonard Hankerson but the defense made big plays when it had to.
Finnegan came up with his second interception in as many weeks and Washington finished with 373 yards and was just four-of-13 on third down.
Most important, that group did everything necessary to get a stop when it absolutely had to have one.
“That’s one thing we talked about going into this week and one thing we talked about going into the last drive,” Dunbar said. “We didn’t want to have that feeling we had last week when we didn’t close the game. We wanted to close it, to finish it and that’s just what we did.”
After settling into victory formation and kneeling twice, the Rams had wrapped the first win of the Fisher era. The joyous players soaked in the victory, even going so far as to shake hands and give out gloves to fans in the south end zone.
“There were so many lessons to be learned tonight, starting with the first offensive play and that’s kind of how the game went,” Fisher said. “We would have a difficult situation arise on the field and they’d bounce right back.”
Again and again.
Monday, September 10, 2012
DETROIT • The Lions were out of timeouts, and just 15 ticks of the clock separated the Rams from a 23-20 victory — a statement victory — in Jeff Fisher's first game as head coach. As Detroit broke the huddle on second-and-goal from the St. Louis 5, star Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson lined his 6-5 frame wide right. Two words came to mind: Fade pattern. The Rams must have thought the same, because they sent two defensive backs his way in double-coverage. But the player known as Megatron didn't get the ball. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford looked and looked, and just before defensive end Chris Long could get to him, he dumped the ball into the right flat to running back Kevin Smith. Smith leaked out of the backfield undetected and could've strolled into the end zone he was so wide open.
The touchdown with 10 seconds left put a dagger in the Rams, who dropped their season opener 27-23. Johnson, the Lions would later say, was indeed the first option on the play. Smith? He was much farther down in the pecking order.
"Kevin's the last option on that play, probably behind throwing it away," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, who was once Fisher's defensive coordinator in Tennessee. In fact, Schwartz said he was yelling "throw it away" in his headset, knowing full well that Stafford couldn't hear him. So the Rams scratched, they clawed, they were resilient. In short, everything you'd expect from a Fisher-coached football team. Except they didn't win.
"It's disturbing," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "It's one of those things where you had the cat in the bag and you let him out. As a defense, we've got to learn how to finish and keep playing till the end."
It looked as if the Rams had the cat — or make that the Lion — in the bag when Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein's third field goal of the day snapped a 20-20 tie with 1 minute, 55 seconds remaining at Ford Field. Zuerlein then dumped his kickoff 7 yards deep into the end zone for a touchback, meaning the Lions had 80 yards to go and only one timeout if they wanted to win the game in regulation. They did just that.
"It's tough," running back Steven Jackson said. "You definitely want to open up the season hopefully with a victory, especially on the road. We knew they were going to be a tough opponent coming off a playoff season last year. For us to have the lead the majority of the game and lose it at the end, it hurts."
For much of the game, a Rams defense designed to keep Stafford off-balance and keep the play in front of them had done just that. The big-play, high-powered Detroit offense had only three pass plays go for more than 20 yards when they took over with 1:55 to play. But they got down the field quickly on that last drive, using their final timeout along the way, with Stafford completing passes of 20, 20 and 18 yards. Were these coverage breakdowns by the Rams, or just good throws by Stafford?
"I'd have to look at it," Fisher said. "But no, we weren't intentionally trying to give up 20 yards a chunk, not when you're up by 3. Once they got it into field goal range, then the mind-set was, 'OK, let's keep 'em out of the end zone.' " But Smith, out of the league last year at this time, had other ideas. So did Stafford.
"I know in that formation, Calvin is going to get all of the attention in the freaking arena," Stafford said. "I just watched 58, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, drop right back in the end zone, and knew that there were about three or four (defenders) on Calvin, and just had to wait for it for a second."
That is, wait for Smith to complete his play fake and work his way past the line of scrimmage. "If we made the tackle on the back in the flat, they may not have gotten their snap off," Fisher said. "We were that close (to a victory)." Trouble was, no Rams defender was in the same area code when it came to being close to Smith.
So on a day when the Rams' defense bailed out the offense most of the afternoon, they couldn't do it at the end when it mattered most. The Rams were outgained 429 yards to 251, but three first-half interceptions gave the Rams a 13-10 lead. Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan — all new to the roster in 2012 — came up with the interceptions. Finnegan made his a "pick 6," returning it 31 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter.
"The coaches put us in a great position all week to make plays," said Finnegan, who had three interception returns for touchdowns as a Titan. "It was just a chance for me to make a play on Calvin (Johnson). I knew they were going to work the outside part of the field with him. They'd been doing it early and often, so the coaches told me where to go and I just made the play."
The interceptions by Jenkins and Dunbar stopped Detroit drives in the red zone and led to Rams field goals. Overall, the Rams didn't blitz much and played a lot of "off" coverage, with Rams cornerbacks several yards off the line of scrimmage. "We had a bunch of variety in our game plan," Dunbar said. "We mixed coverages. Man, zone. Some (Cover) 3, some 4, some 2. We played a little bit of everything. So we wanted to give him different looks, get after him a little bit, and also be able to drop in coverage and make some plays."
The strategy worked like a charm — until that final drive, that is.