Greatness not in the Cards?

ST. LOUIS -- One loss in the NFL isn't normally a cause for major concern. The Arizona Cardinals might be thinking differently after their 17-3 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night.

The Cardinals came into that game as the league's hottest feel-good story, an undefeated team riding a wave of unforeseeable momentum. They left with all sorts of questions, the most pressing being how they'll protect their quarterback going forward.

The Rams didn't just beat up Kevin Kolb on Thursday. They swarmed him every chance they got. They pounced on him nearly every time he dropped back. The final statistics said St. Louis defenders sacked the Cardinals quarterback nine times in this Arizona defeat. If not for some nifty footwork by Kolb, that number easily would've stretched deep into the double-digits.

This wasn't the same Arizona team that surprised the Patriots in New England and stormed through the Philadelphia Eagles a week later. These Cardinals looked woefully unprepared to deal with everything the revived Rams threw at them.

As Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said afterward, "We became one-dimensional. We fought, but it was tough."

It was no secret that the Cardinals didn't have the best offensive line coming into this season. Remember, Kolb was sacked eight times in that win over Miami. The scary thing for Arizona is that there doesn't appear to be an easy fix for this obvious flaw. It can talk about tweaking its schemes all it wants, but it's not like opposing defenses aren't going to be coming after Kolb with a similar fury.

What Arizona needs is running back Beanie Wells, who went on injured reserve with a toe injury last month. He gave the Cardinals a physical banger, a runner who could at least keep opponents honest with his presence. There was no threat of a running game for Arizona on Thursday. The Cardinals managed a measly 45 yards on 17 carries while Kolb attempted 50 passes on the night.

Arizona clearly hoped to control tempo with that short-passing game. Their problem was they couldn't connect on potential big plays when opportunities arose and they couldn't stop the Rams from smelling blood. The longer this game went on, the more St. Louis increased its pressure.

"We got into a situation where they could pin their ears back and come after us," Kolb said. "It's obvious that we need to get our running game going."

That would be an easy thing to say if the Cardinals weren't reaching the hardest part of their schedule. In the next five weeks, they will face Buffalo, Minnesota, San Francisco, Green Bay and Atlanta. The games against the Vikings, Packers and Falcons will all be on the road. That means more hostile, deafening crowds like the ones the Cardinals found in St. Louis. It also means more encounters with some seriously dangerous pass-rushers.

It's not like the Rams were causing problems with Jared Allen or Clay Matthews out there. As improved as St. Louis is on defense, the Rams aren't as strong on that side of the ball as the 49ers. The Cardinals thrived in their first four games because they had their own staunch, opportunistic defense and a fairly efficient offense. It's hard to see them getting back to that winning formula now that more teams are succeeding in pounding their quarterback.

The Rams created so much pressure on Kolb that even the smallest mistakes did the Cardinals in on Thursday. Rookie Michael Floyd dropped a key pass that could've kept an impressive drive alive. Kolb missed a couple of receivers on plays that should've led to touchdowns. Kicker Jay Feely hooked an easy 40-yard field goal wide left when Arizona was down 10-3 in the second quarter.

"We had the ball for 20 minutes in the first half and got three points," Whisenhunt said. "You can't do that."

The Rams obviously deserve plenty of credit for this. This wasn't merely a case of a good team having a bad day. St. Louis proved why the hiring of head coach Jeff Fisher was such a critical offseason move for this franchise. This team plays with the same edge and passion Fisher cultivated during his 17 seasons with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans. At 3-2, the Rams are over .500 for the first time since the 2006 season.

The Cardinals know plenty about what that kind of success does for an organization. They had won 11 of their past 13 games before Thursday night. They had proven that they could make do with middling quarterbacks such as Kolb and John Skelton and that their chemistry was greater than people realized. Even when people questioned them after their fast start this season, they had a resolve that was only strengthened by continually being underestimated.

Arizona had better call on that inner strength once again because the doubters will be lining up en masse. All the good vibes that came with their 4-0 start just vanished amidst an embarrassing defeat. That doesn't mean the Cardinals don't have the ability to rebound from this. It does mean their jobs just became that much harder.

The Cardinals should know better than anybody that fast starts don't determine what a team will be by season's end. They opened last year 1-6 before turning their fortunes around in impressive fashion. The Arizona players who were involved in that resurrection would be wise to recall how they pulled off the feat.

Now that the word is clearly out on their offensive line, it won't be nearly as easy to be excited about where this season is heading.