EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For all of the excitement and drama that existed in the Rams’ win against Arizona, there was a clear feeling in the team’s locker room after the game that things didn’t have to be so difficult.
The Rams escaped with a 27-24 victory in the regular-season opener and were, in many ways, fortunate to take it. To a man, though, every Ram I talked to brought up some variation of the “shooting-ourselves-in-the-foot” cliché.
Yes, the Rams had seven costly penalties that hurt them but there was another, more easily correlated statistic that turned what could have been a reasonably comfortable win into a come-from-behind flourish: turnovers.
The turnover margin isn’t the issue here; the Rams came up with two takeaways to equal the pair they gave away. It wasn’t the turnovers themselves so much as what the Rams and Cardinals did with them.
For the offense, it meant not taking full advantage of the prime field position they got from the defense’s two takeaways.
“We had two sudden changes, offensively, and we got two field goals,” Fisher said. “We want to get touchdowns out of that field position that the defense put them in and we didn’t.”
After Trumaine Johnson's interception and return to open the third quarter, the Rams started at the 4. They ran three plays and netted minus-3 yards before settling for a field goal.
Following end Robert Quinn's sack and forced fumble in the fourth quarter, the Rams had first down at Arizona’s 22. They fared better this time, running three plays and netting minus-1 yard.
Given two golden opportunities to take control of the game, the Rams ran six plays, lost 4 yards and settled for six points.
Looking further into those plays, many of them were doomed from the start. In the first sequence, quarterback Sam Bradford threw a pass into the right flat for back Daryl Richardson that was batted down.
On second down, the Rams spread things out with Bradford in the shotgun with three receivers split right and a tight end attached to the left side of the line. Arizona stacked five on the line with the remaining six defenders no further off than 4 yards. At the snap, the Cardinals brought eight defenders on a blitz and Richardson was dropped for a loss of 3.
The third-down play was a misfire to receiver Austin Pettis in the right corner of the end zone. The drive after Long’s fumble recovery wasn’t much better and culminated with a head-scratching receiver screen to Pettis, who hasn’t exactly carved out a reputation for his run-after-catch abilities.
Later, the Rams executed a beautiful play-action pass and quarterback draw for a touchdown and two-point conversion deep in Arizona territory. The calls were creative yet simple. It's up to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to continue to find things that work like those plays and eliminate the ones that don't like the Richardson run or screen to Pettis.
On the flip side of the Rams’ struggles to convert takeaways into touchdowns was an opportunistic Arizona team that took full advantage of its chances.
Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu's terrific hustle play to force a Jared Cook fumble gave Arizona the ball at its 20 but that distance didn’t seem to faze them much. Carson Palmer promptly drove the Cardinals 80 yards on eight plays to turn what was nearly a 7-0 Rams lead into a 7-0 Cardinals advantage.
The Cardinals then got the ultimate in converting takeaways into points with defensive tackle Dan Williams' 2-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“We blew so many opportunities today,” Bradford said. “Obviously, the turnover giving them the seven points didn’t help. I think it shows we’ve got a lot to correct, but with the guys we have in this locker room now there’s no doubt that we can overcome that.”
All told, the Rams were minus-8 in points off turnovers, eight points that could have either been avoided or nullified by doing a better job of finishing their own drives after sudden changes.
Because it’s just one game, it’s not a particularly alarming statistic, especially given the Rams’ relative success in taking advantage of turnovers and keeping opponents from doing so in 2012.
Last year, the Rams finished with a minus-1 turnover margin but managed 72 points off their 21 takeaways and allowed 54 points off 22 giveaways. That plus-18 margin ranked 13th in the NFL.
Obviously, any points are better than none but as the Rams dive into road games against the likes of Atlanta and Dallas, they’ll have to find ways to convert takeaways into touchdowns. They managed to get the job done against the Cardinals anyway but they may not have that same luck moving forward.