LONDON • As Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan so aptly put it: "Sometimes you're the bug, and sometimes you're the windshield."
It wasn't difficult to tell which was which Sunday night in Wembley Stadium.
The Rams got some sightseeing in during their weeklong stay in the England. Among other things, they saw the Tower of London, and the crown jewels, and Trafalgar Square. What they didn't see was that red, white, and blue truck — complete with windshield — otherwise known as the New England Patriots.
After a promising start, the Rams were outscored, outplayed and humiliated by the Patriots in a 45-7 loss before a sellout crowd of 84,004
It was a long way to go to play so poorly. The Rams, now losers of three in a row, fell to 3-5 and have an extra week to stew about it as they enter their bye before returning to action Nov. 11 at San Francisco.
"There's just days where you're going" to stink, defensive end Chris Long said. "And ... we were terrible. We were also playing a Hall of Famer. So it was a bad day to come out and be below average."
The Patriots, who pulled the future Hall of Famer — quarterback Tom Brady — with 8 minutes, 20 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, improved to 5-3. Adding insult to injury, they topped 350 yards of offense for the 17th consecutive game, breaking a record they had shared with the Greatest Show on Turf - more precisely, the 2001 Rams team they defeated in Super Bowl XXXVI.
"They got off to a good start" with the early touchdown, Brady said. "We countered and never looked back."
Things started promisingly enough for the Rams, who came out in the no-huddle after taking the opening kickoff. Just five plays into the game, quarterback Sam Bradford found wide receiver Chris Givens deep for a 50-yard touchdown pass. It marked the fifth consecutive game Givens had caught a pass of 50 yards or more, setting an NFL rookie record.
"First time we touch the ball, we go down and score -- exactly what we planned to do," Bradford said. "And then it just all felt apart from there."
The lead lasted as long as fish and chips do at lunchtime around here. Before you could say "Spygate," it was 28-7 Patriots at halftime.
"I don't know what happened," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "A lot of things steamrolled against us. We had plays where we just dropped coverages, missed communications. At the end of the day, we're a better defense than this - than what showed."
En route to a 473-yard day on offense, Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots' underrated running game couldn't be stopped, or even slowed. The Patriots scored TDs on their first five possessions, including all four series in the first half.
The Rams forgot to pack their pass rush for this trip, going sackless for the first time all season. When they rushed four, Brady had plenty of time. When they blitzed, Brady carved them up like a Thanksgiving turkey, frequently throwing to the area vacated by the blitzer.
Former Ram Brandon Lloyd caught only two passes Sunday, but both went for touchdowns as he gave rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins fits.
Two more Brady TD tosses went to Gronkowski, who gave Rams safeties and anyone else in his path fits with eight catches for 146 yards. Gronkowski looked like a rugby player out there, bouncing off would-be tacklers for extra yardage with his 6-6, 265-pound frame.
"He's a good player," safety Quintin Mikell said. "I think him and Tom have a rapport together, and he creates certain matchup problems with his size and all that stuff. At the end of the day, if we're all doing what we're supposed to do, we can minimize that."
About the only thing that got minimized Sunday was the effectiveness of the Rams' offense. The Rams got some cheap rushing yards near the end of the game, after the Patriots had sent out their JV defense, but Thunder (Steven Jackson) & Lightning (Daryl Richardson) never really got going.
And after the big strike to Givens early, the Rams never did much to exploit one of the league's worst pass defenses.
"You look at their defense and I think they were 30th defending the pass, so we came into this game really expecting to move the ball," Bradford said. "We got beat in every phase of the game. Got dominated. I don't think there is any other way to put it."
After the Rams' opening score, they didn't make it into New England territory again until their fourth possession late in the first half, and that ended in a mini-disaster. On the first play following the 2-minute warning, Greg Zuerlein lined up for a 53-yard field goal but never got "The Leg" on the ball. Holder Johnny Hekker bobbled the snap and was forced to scramble for his life.
Hekker was tackled for a 9-yard loss with New England taking over at its 45, giving Brady a short a field for the Patriots' fourth TD drive of the day just before the half. It wasn't until the end of the third quarter, by which time the Rams were down by 31 points, that New England was forced to punt.
Just before the start of the second half, coach Jeff Fisher gathered the entire Rams team around him on the field and gave an animated speech trying to stir up the squad. So much for the impassioned plea: The Patriots needed only six plays to reach the end zone again after taking the second half kickoff.
At 35-7 and only 2½ minutes into the second half, it was only a matter of how big the shellacking would be. It turned out to be the Rams' worst defeat since a 47-7 setback late in 2009, Steve Spagnuolo's inaugural season in St. Louis, to Fisher's Tennessee Titans.
"What is required to beat a Patriot team that's playing that well on both sides of the ball is a near-perfect game, and obviously, we were unable to do that," Fisher said. "Tom got a hot hand, and had a good sense, and those guys made a lot of plays for him.
"So this will be a real test for our young football team going into the bye week coming off a disappointing loss like this. We'll find out a lot about ourselves."
Even after watching game film Monday, the Rams' 17-14 defeat in Miami had to be one of those deals in which the head coach scratches his head and wonders out loud: How did we lose this one?
And that kind of loss is tough to take.
"Yeah, it is," Jeff Fisher said. "The numbers — the statistics — reflect a well-played game on both sides of the ball. But you have to be very careful to walk down the hall thinking that things are OK because the statistics were so skewed in our favor."
Boy, were they skewed. The Rams' 462 yards of offense marked their highest single-game output since a 37-31 overtime victory over Washington on Christmas Eve 2006. The Rams piled up 579 yards in that contest.
The Rams' 294 yards in the first half against the Dolphins was the ninth-highest first-half total in the franchise's 75-year history.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Rams allowed only 19 yards rushing to the Dolphins, the lowest total since the move to St. Louis in 1995. Additionally, the 192 total yards allowed tied for eighth-lowest in the franchise's 18 seasons here.
On Monday, Fisher had a distinct idea of how and where things went awry in south Florida.
"When you lose a close game — by a field goal — there's little things that contribute," Fisher said. "And there were some little things. But to me there was also a big thing that contributed to this loss — and that was the second quarter.
"In the second quarter, we had seven penalties, missed two field goals and turned the ball (over) inside our opponent's territory on the 25-yard line."
Plus there was a busted coverage by rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins that resulted in Miami's first touchdown.
"At the end of the day we let things slip in the second quarter, and then we just couldn't make the plays in the second half to regain it," Fisher said. "When you're playing a close game, you don't guess on a route, and that's what happened with 'Jenks.' Sometimes he guesses right, but he thought he saw something, and the guy ran right by him."
The result was a 29-yard touchdown catch by Marlon Moore, giving Miami a 7-6 lead — a lead the Dolphins never relinquished.
"When you put together a great defensive effort you say: How could we have done better?" Fisher said. "Well, that's certainly how you do better. You don't give up a long ball like that. I'm not singling him out per se, but in close games you can't allow those things to happen."
Fisher provided another example on offense — wide receiver Brandon Gibson played one of his best games as a Ram.
"It's hard to find a better catch than that catch in that last drive, and a couple of the other catches that he made," Fisher said. "But he double-catches one and he should get his feet (in bounds), in (Miami) territory. So he's had a great game, but what if we would've made that catch? Would things be different down there?"
Gibson's bobble came inside the Miami 20 and would've given the Rams a first down on their first drive of the game. Instead, they settled for a Greg Zuerlein field goal.
"So there's your definition of how you lose close games," Fisher said. "You have a lot of little things add up."
Even with the Rams' dominance on offense and defense, the loss to Miami also illustrates the importance of special teams play.
That unit had been very consistent in the first five games but was a big liability against Miami. Besides the three missed field goals by Zuerlein, the Rams committed the day's only turnover — on a fumbled kickoff return by Brit Miller.
"You get up in the traffic, put both hands on it and go down," Fisher said. "You see it (happen) that way too often, guys that aren't used to handling balls need to get down."
Jenkins, taking over on punt returns for the injured Danny Amendola, fumbled his first return out of bounds, costing the Rams field position by pinning them back at their 8.
"We got outplayed on special teams," long snapper Jake McQuaide said. "I think that's gonna be pretty evident."
To start the second half, Marcus Thigpen got loose for a 44-yard kickoff return, giving Miami good field position on its second TD drive.
"We had a guy in the wrong position," Fisher said.
And there was one more glaring special teams problem late in the game. On a fourth-and-1 play from the Miami 40 with 3½ minutes to play, the Dolphins lined up in punt formation. But up-back Chris Clemons took the snap and ran 3 yards for a first down.
The Rams eventually got the ball back, but the successful fake allowed the Dolphins to chew up 1½ minutes of time and forced the Rams to burn their second timeout.
"That's on me," Fisher said. "I didn't think that they would do that, or I would've left the defense out there."
Instead of keeping the starting defense on the field, the Rams had their punt return unit on the field for what turned out to be the fake on a successful gamble by Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin.
The Rams certainly won’t get any style points. Perhaps much of the national television audience called it a night early or flipped over to a reality show. But in this long-forsaken football outpost, there was nothing but joy Thursday night in downtown St. Louis.
Football has returned to St. Louis after a long absence. Winning football, that is. For the first time since Nov. 4, 2006 when Scott Linehan’s inaugural squad had a 4-3 record, the Rams are above .500 after beating previously unbeaten Arizona 17-3 Thursday at the Edward Jones Dome.
It was the Rams’ first home victory over the Cardinals (4-1) since 2004. At 3-2, the Rams are just a game out of the division lead in the NFL’s new black-and-blue division, the NFC West. These two teams pounded at each other all night long before a spirited, towel-waving crowd.
The Rams made pulp out of Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, but the blitzing Big Red didn’t exactly treat Sam Bradford with kid gloves. There were so many injured players helped off the arena floor it looked like an episode of Spartacus.
"It was a great effort," coach Jeff Fisher said. "The team had a sense for what we had to do going into this game because of the respect factor for their defense. Their defense is really, really talented. So we knew it was going to be a hard day offensively, so the defense had to step up and they did."
They stepped up to the tune of nine sacks and great red zone play.
"This defense is the heart and soul of this team right now," said rookie wide receiver Chris Givens, who gave the Rams some much-needed breathing room with a 51-yard touchdown reception from Bradford early in the fourth quarter. "We feed off their energy. You guys see how they go out there every snap, and play with passion and intensity."
Arizona got inside the Rams’ 20 on three occasions and got only a field goal to show for it.
On two other red zone forays, the Big Red were stopped on downs late in the fourth quarter, once on a sure tackle of Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald by rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins on the 3 after a short completion with 5 minutes, 25 seconds to play.
And once on a sack by Cortland Finnegan on a corner blitz on fourth-and-1 from the St. Louis 13 with 2:09 to play.
But the Rams had to make one more defensive stand after getting the ball back from Arizona with 1:41 left. This time, defensive end Robert Quinn ended any suspense. His third sack of the game resulted in a fumble by Kolb with defensive lineman William Hayes falling on the football. After that, it was time for the victory formation kneel-downs after the Rams’ third home victory in as many tries.
"It’s nice to end the game on our first caused fumble and recovered fumble of the year," Fisher said. "God, I hope they keep coming."
The Rams’ defense entered the game second in the league with eight interceptions but did not even force a fumble — much less recover one — in their first four games.
Facing the league’s third-stingiest defense in terms of points allowed, the Rams knew they would have their work cut out for them scoring points. The Rams didn’t score an offensive touchdown four days before against a Seattle team ranked second in total defense. But it took them less than 2∏ minutes to do so against an Arizona defense that had yielded only four TDs this season entering Thursday’s contest.
The big play on the drive was a 44-yard pass from quarterback Bradford to Danny Amendola. Amendola did a great job of tracking the ball in the air while being interfered with by Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson on the play.
St. Louis declined the pass interference penalty, taking the play and a first down at the Arizona 11. On third-and-6 from the 7, Bradford fired a strike to tight end Lance Kendricks in the end zone. Greg Zuerlein’s extra point gave St. Louis a 7-0 with 12:39 left in the first quarter after what was Kendricks’ first NFL touchdown. Keep in mind, Arizona entered the game second in the league in red zone defense, allowing only three TDs in the red zone in its first four games.
After an Arizona field goal, the Rams and Cardinals played the field position game. But a 14-yard punt return by Amendola to the 50 followed by two runs for 15 yards by Steven Jackson advanced the ball to the Arizona 35. And that’s all the room the Rams needed for a 53-yard field goal by "The Leg." Zuerlein’s 13th consecutive field goal gave the Rams a 10-3 lead with 10:45 to go in the first half.
Midway through the second quarter, the Rams suffered a couple of costly injuries. On a play in which he almost made a spectacular 22-yard catch on a fade pattern from Bradford, Amendola suffered a shoulder injury landing on the turf. The play originally was ruled a catch, but Arizona was successful on an instant replay challenge on third-and-5 at the St. Louis 9. Amendola did not return.
After a 19-yard return by Peterson following a Johnny Hekker punt, Arizona took over at midfield. And on the first play of that Big Red drive, Rams strong safety Quintin Mikell suffered a head injury making a tackle. Mikell had been playing some of his best football since joining the Rams in 2011. He was replaced by Darian Stewart and did not return.
Four games into the new season, the Rams aren’t going to be admired for their good looks. Their performances aren’t smooth, refined, or handsome. It’s a team of dirty faces. A team with bruises, abrasions, and blood stains. The Rams will win ugly, if that’s what’s necessary. The Rams often get themselves into trouble, but also can find their way out of the jam. They are laborers. They make plays.
That’s the best way to explain their 2-2 record and competitiveness in all four games. Even in their two losses, the Rams had a chance to win in the fourth quarter. They twice took the lead late at Detroit, but the defense couldn’t make a stop at the end. At Chicago, the Rams were within one score of tying it up with less than 10 minutes remaining, but the offense couldn’t block the Bears’ front four and the situation deteriorated.
The Rams have been outscored 24-9 in the first quarter. They have been outscored 31-20 in the fourth quarter. They have the same number of points (13) as their opponents in the third quarter. The Rams have “won” only one quarter, the second, outscoring foes 36-24. So despite trailing early and fairly often, the Rams are 2-2, and probably should be 3-1.
The Rams hang tough and stay close for several reasons, and we’ll mention a few:
1.This one isn’t quantifiable, but they’re just a lot tougher under Jeff Fisher. Which was the expectation. That’s his rep. He builds tough teams. The Rams have that. It isn’t just a matter of physical play. The Rams are mentally tough. That’s why they’re able to come back from so many deficits.
They were down 7-3 to Detroit, and took the lead twice when trailing the Lions in the fourth quarter. The Rams defeated Washington despite being down 14-3 and 21-6. They fell behind 10-0 at Chicago, and got it to 10-6 before slipping late. Seattle took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards for a 7-0 lead; the Rams didn’t blink. In Seattle, they’re wondering how the Seahawks managed to lose this one 19-13 despite rushing for 179 yards and not allowing a touchdown.
(Well, look at the coach. Fisher won the matchup against Pete Carroll.) But more than anything, opponents have to realize that they’re up against a different kind of animal now when they tangle with St. Louis. The Rams are not the same, old, sorry-sack team that’s been kicked around for years. Not with Fisher coaching them. This is new. We’re not used to seeing such resilience.
2. The Rams defense makes stops: they’re giving up around 349 net yards per game. That’s nothing special; it ranks 14th among 32 teams. The Rams are vulnerable against the run. They rank 26th in yielding 135 yards per game, and 26th in allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. They’ve been barreled over for six rushing TDs. Quarterbacks have completed 64.7 percent of the passes against the Rams defense.
This group limits the damage. It cuts its losses. It makes plays. It puts up resistance. The Rams are 7th in the NFL in stopping opponents on 3rd down, allowing a conversion rate of 31.1 percent.
The Rams lead the NFL with eight interceptions. They’ve been dinged by only two TD passes, which is tied for first. The Rams TD/INT ratio of 0.25 is the best in the league. They’re limiting quarterbacks to a passer rating of 64.2; that’s No. 2 in the league.
And that Rams defense that isn’t so rigid against the run? Yesterday Seattle ran the ball four times on third down and short (0-2 yards). The Rams held them to six yards on the four rushes, and twice prevented a first down.
Fisher always tells his players: don’t look at the scoreboard. Keep playing. Make enough plays, and the scoreboard will change.
3. Sam Bradford makes plays: Really, I’m not trying to cause the Sammy haters to go into convulsions. Bradford’s overall stats are ordinary. The offense is limited. The Rams average 19.8 points per game, 26th in the NFL. They have five TDs from scrimmage, tied for last. They average 311 yards, which is 27th.
So why do I say that Bradford makes plays? Well, because he does. Bradford has been one of the best quarterbacks in third-down situations. He’s been good on third down and longer distances. He’s been effective in the fourth quarter when his team is up by seven or fewer points, or down by seven or fewer points.
Let’s take a look:
• On third down, Bradford has completed 22 of 33 (66.7 percent) with a TD and no interceptions. That completion percentage ranks 7th among starting quarterbacks. His third-down passer rating of 102.2 is also No. 7 among QBs. His percentage of picking up third downs on passing attempts is 51.5, which ranks 4th in the league. Bradford’s yards per passing attempt of 8.27 on third down ranks 6th.
• Against Seattle, Bradford converted a 3rd and 14, and two 3rd and 13s. When Bradford faced a third and 11+ yards through the first four games, he’s completed all three passing attempts and secured a first down each time. His passer rating in that situation is 118.8. Quarterbacks don’t have great success on 3rd down needing between 8 and 10 yards. In those instances Bradford has completed 8 of 10, and his first-down conversion rate of 50 percent ranks No. 8 among
• In the 4th quarter and the Rams are leading by 7 points or fewer or trailing by 7 points or fewer, Bradford has completed 17 of 27 with two TDs and an interception. In this category, his passer rating of 97.6 ranks 10th in the league. And he’s converted third downs at a rate of 55.6 percent; that’s No. 2 among passers.
Yes, we’d all like to see more touchdowns, fewer field goals. We’d like to see more big plays, and fewer catches for short yardage. We’d like to see better red zone success. Absolutely. But until the Rams develop more playmakers, it’s positive to have your quarterback making plays that move the chains and set up the rookie kicker for field goals.
4. Greg the Leg: Zuerlein is 12 for 12 in his field goal attempts, but we aren’t talking about a lot of putts or chip shots. Of the 12 FGs, seven have been for 46 yards or longer. The rookie already has kicked field goals of 56, 58 and 60 yards. The Rams’ single-season franchise record for most field goals of 50+ yards is six, held by three players. (Tony Zendejas, Jeff Wilkins, Josh Brown.) So Zuerlein only needs four more FGs of 50+ to set a record.
Needless to say, young "GeeZy" has become an extraordinary weapon for Fisher and the Rams. As we’ve discussed, the Rams are not a touchdown machine. Getting into the end zone will be a challenge. But you still need to score as many points as possible, and now the Rams have a kicker with remarkable range, which sets up more FG chances. Now when the Rams move past the 50-yard line, they’ve entered Zuerlein’s range. What used to be a fourth-down punt may become a FG attempt instead. Not many kickers are game-changers, but Zuerlein seems to be one. I don’t think the Rams win yesterday with four blasts from Kid Dynamite.