PHILADELPHIA -- The thin line between winning and losing an NFL football game is hard to bloat, but the St. Louis Rams seem to have a knack for finding a way to decrease an already minuscule margin for error every week.
Sunday's 34-28 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles offered plenty of examples of what can happen when the Rams team up with their opponent to beat the Rams. Taking nothing away from the Eagles, who have found a way to win four of five tries this season, the Rams once again provided plenty of help.
It's a trait found in each of the team's three losses this season and one that goes back for the better part of a decade. Against the Eagles, they consistently loaded up on silly penalties (10 for 82 yards), dropped passes (six by unofficial count), busted coverages (Jeremy Maclin's 24-yard touchdown catch was every bit as open as the 68-yard strike to Dez Bryant two weeks ago), struggled in protection (Trent Cole's sack and forced fumble resulted in a defensive touchdown) and even offered up a special teams miscue that had nothing to do with a yellow penalty flag (which is usually the norm).
"Overall, when you have penalties, you turn the ball over, you have a punt blocked for a touchdown, numerous drops, it's not winning football," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.
For a team coming off a bye, the blame should be shared by all for the repeated mistakes. And it won't get much better as the Rams are only scratching the surface on a brutal schedule that includes nothing but 2013 playoff teams and the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals over the next seven weeks.
Although the Rams offered a praiseworthy second-half comeback, they set their own ominous tone on the game's first drive. Loading up in three tight end formations, the offense looked like a group poised to run the ball right at Philadelphia. Instead, they began with three head-scratching pass plays, each falling incomplete as the Eagles had Rams quarterback Austin Davis under siege.
Just 16 seconds into the game, the Rams sent punter Johnny Hekker onto the field. In most cases, Rams' special teams errors come in the form of a penalty, but they made an error much bigger this time.
Before every punt, the punt team is supposed to count defenders from the outside in. Depending on how many defenders are on the side, each blocker knows who his man is at the snap. According to the Rams' Chase Reynolds, somebody miscounted which left a gaping hole in the "A" gap for the Eagles' James Casey to run through untouched.
On the replay, each Rams blocker on the left side of the line turns to the left and the opening comes between linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong and tight end Cory Harkey. Reynolds had to choose between Casey and tight end Trey Burton, who was also his assignment on the play. Reynolds picked up Burton and Casey blocked the punt. Safety Chris Maragos scooped it up for the touchdown and a quick and easy 7-0 lead the Eagles would not surrender.
"The guy (on the outside) was really wide so sometimes for the guards and tackles to see the wide guys out there, it’s kind of difficult," Reynolds said. "But like I said, they did a fantastic job. Just one little error like that can cost you."
It wouldn't have cost the Rams so much had it been the only such error on the day. The penalty problems should be expected at this point and though they had dissipated some in the first three weeks, dropped passes have also been a hallmark of recent Rams teams. But while those result in lost downs or yards, the miscommunication continues to result in big plays.
Such was the case on Maclin's touchdown catch as cornerback Lamarcus Joyner was supposed to stay with Maclin but thought safety Rodney McLeod was supposed to take over the coverage. Instead, neither covered Maclin and he was wide open for the touchdown that made it 34-7.
"It was a miscommunication," McLeod said. "It was a formation we saw earlier and made the right call earlier but that time it was just a mistake but that was one thing we have got to preach on. That could be the difference in a ball game."
For the Rams, those types of plays couldn't be the difference in a ball game. They are.