ST. LOUIS -- This was the defense the St. Louis Rams had hoped to be at the beginning of the 2013 season. Without their starting quarterback, it’s the defense the Rams need to be to have a chance to win games the rest of the season.
It still wasn’t enough.
Despite a defensive performance commensurate with their dreams of finishing in the league’s top 10, the Rams fell 14-9 to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night.
If a defensive effort that held the Seahawks to seven first downs, 2.9 yards per carry and 135 total yards to go with seven sacks isn’t enough to get a win without Sam Bradford, what will be?
“We knew coming in we could play these guys tough,” defensive end Chris Long said. “It says a lot more about us, I think, just that guys didn’t flinch. We had a big injury last week. Guys just said this would be a good week to hunker down and play more like us, and we played more like us. We have got to pull that win out. That one hurts.”
Early last week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher challenged his entire team to rise to the occasion after the loss of Bradford to a season-ending knee injury.
While many eyes turned to backup Kellen Clemens hoping he'd magically turn into a consistently productive starter, the more realistic response was for a Rams defense that had worked its way into the middle of the NFL pack in 2012 to take the next step and become the group that many had pegged it for in 2013.
Through seven weeks, the Rams defense hadn't proved itself capable of taking over games. Last season, that group came up with enough timely takeaways and sacks to cover for an offense that lagged behind.
Entering Monday’s game, the Rams ranked 22nd in yards allowed per game and 24th in points allowed per game.
Those numbers were far from indicative of the group that took advantage of a shoddy Seattle offensive line and held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 23 yards on eight carries.
“I think we did a great job defensively just disrupting their whole offensive game plan,” defensive tackle Kendall Langford said. “I feel like we dominated them the whole game minus the one explosive play they had. I feel like we pretty much had our way with them. Games like this hurt because you feel like you should have walked away with a W with the way we played.”
Before Bradford’s injury, the Rams didn’t enjoy much margin for error. Without Bradford, that margin closed even tighter.
In his first start since 2011 and the 13th of his NFL career, Clemens showed some signs of being able to move the offense well enough to steal a win, particularly with a dominant defensive performance. He got out of trouble with his running ability and extended some plays that appeared dead on arrival. He also led the Rams on an impressive late drive that nearly won the game.
But Clemens also did the one thing that Bradford rarely did before his injury: surrender costly turnovers. He threw two interceptions, one of which led to Seattle’s first touchdown. While neither of those picks can be blamed completely on Clemens, he did throw a bit high on the second and appeared to throw without seeing the receiver on the first.
All told, Clemens finished 15-of-31 for 158 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a rating of 36.8. While the Rams ran the ball almost at will, the offense was unable to break through for a touchdown.
“I thought he managed the game pretty well,” Fisher said. “I’m not going to fault him for those interceptions ... so it wasn’t easy for him. That’s the second-rated defense in the National Football League, but he took us to the last play of the game. I’m proud of his effort.”
In Bradford’s absence, that inability to finish drives could well become the norm for an offense that had scored 13 touchdowns in 25 red zone trips this season. That group ventured inside Seattle’s 20 four times and mustered three field goals before coming up empty on the game’s final drive.
Regardless of opinions about Bradford and how the offense was playing before his injury, it’s hard to imagine that an offense with him at the controls would have come up short every time Monday, especially on a night when the run game was clicking and the defense was finally playing up to its lofty goals.
“There is a really good defense here, a top-10 defense,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “We kind of set the standard for it today and playing like that against that team, that’s the way you have got to play each and every week now.”
In the new reality of the Rams post-Bradford, they might have to find a way to be even better.