Although the Rams escaped with a 17-10 victory over Arizona in their season opener and rushed for 176 yards on 30 attempts, some of the team's previous problems remain.
The Rams had turnovers on their first three possessions, and also failed to score touchdowns on their first two trips to the red zone. But there is no arguing with what they were able to accomplish offensively, thanks to rejuvenated running back Marshall Faulk and an offensive line that protected quarterback Marc Bulger to the tune of no sacks.
There have been those that questioned how much Faulk and wide receiver Isaac Bruce have left, but Faulk was like a spry colt, galloping for 128 yards on 22 carries while Bruce had nine receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown, which was the one that won the game.
Asked about Faulk and Bruce, coach Mike Martz said, "Every week and every year it's the same thing, people want to know if Isaac or Marshall have diminished. Maybe I'm too close to them, but I don't see it, maybe you guys do. They always rise to the occasion, and they're just incredible competitors. It's just a blessing to have them."
Asked about offseason questions regarding his future, Faulk said, "Questions. That's all it is -- questions. I've got a whole season to go for this knee and this body to hold up, and hopefully for many more seasons."
Faulk hailed the team's offensive line, which just got left tackle Orlando Pace back from a summer-long absence the Monday before the opener.
"They didn't just hold there own, they were outstanding out there," Faulk said. "They've been criticized throughout camp, but they did well. If someone is grading that unit, they should make up a new grade for them."
Asked about a grade, Pace said, "I would have to give us an A-plus because we rushed the ball pretty good, and I don't know if there were any sacks registered today. If you can do that you will have success and you will win the ball game."
Pace had just four practices prior to the game after signing his one-year tender Sept. 6. But he reported in excellent shape and said he never felt winded during the game. As for the boos from fans when he was introduced with the starting offense before the game, Pace said, "They feel the way they want to feel. It's a free country. All I can do is go out and play my style of football and help my team win."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS
B - QB Marc Bulger threw one bad interception, but still completed 67.6 percent of his passes, and led the Rams on an 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter after the Cardinals had gone ahead, 10-9. He needs to find Marshall Faulk more on checkdowns, but the passing game was good enough for Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt to combine for 16 receptions and 208 yards.
A - Yes, it was against the Cardinals, but Faulk and rookie Steven Jackson were effective as a one-two combination. Of Faulk's 22 attempts, 10 were for at least six yards and he had five attempts of 11 yards or more with a long of 18. Jackson gained 50 yards on seven attempts, with the only negative a fumble after his first NFL attempt, a 14-yard gain. On one red-zone trip, the Rams were unable to run the ball in for a touchdown after starting with first-and-goal from the 4-yard line.
B - Following a 37-yard play on a flea-flicker on Arizona's first play from scrimmage, the Rams' defense limited the Cardinals to 120 net passing yards for the rest of the game. Cardinals tight end Freddie Jones caught six passes, but the defense prevented him from making yards after the catch as he gained just 39 yards (6.5 per reception).
B-minus - There were some lapses in gap control and tackling for stretches, especially on Arizona's lone touchdown drive, but generally the defense was solid against the run. They also did a good job containing mobile quarterback Josh McCown, who rushed just once for five yards.
C - The Rams' kickoff and punt return units are no better than mediocre. The kick coverage had one lapse when Josh Scobey returned a kickoff 71 yards. Kicker Jeff Wilkins, who was 39 for 42 on field goals last season, picked up where he left off, hitting all three of his attempts, including a 50-yarder that gave the Rams a 3-0 lead.
B - Mike Martz will be criticized for using timeouts and foolishly challenging a Steven Jackson fumble, but the offensive game plan mixed the run and pass (30 rushes, 34 pass plays), and the offensive line came together after a summer of player shuffling. Defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, facing his former team, received a game ball as the defense allowed just 260 yards and 4.8 yards per play.
--Rams running back Marshall Faulk was asked about competing against Arizona running back Emmitt Smith, who rushed for 87 yards on 16 carries.
"You don't compete against another running back," Faulk said. "Emmitt's a great back. A guy I idolized. Durable, longevity, a guy that gets it done. You look at him out there and you wonder what he's doing playing. But he makes things happen, he's effective. And you saw when he came out after halftime, he put up some runs and got the team going. The guy's effective."
Smith had 43 yards on five carries, including an 11-yard touchdown in the drive that gave the Cardinals a 10-9 lead with 57 seconds left in the third quarter. However, the Rams' defense limited Smith to 12 yards on four attempts in the fourth quarter.
--Quarterback Marc Bulger started his first season opener and ended up with an 89.3 passer rating and the winning touchdown pass. There was some frustration that the Rams' first three possessions all ended with turnovers that occurred in Arizona territory.
"I think it'd be more frustrating, though, if we couldn't get outside of our 30-yard line or something and we're just not moving the ball," Bulger said. "We knew if we just kept going at it, the ball is going down the field and eventually we're going to get in the end zone and score some points."
As for his own play, Bulger said, "I played good at times, bad at times. But winning is the only thing that matters. I'm not going to ever sit here and say I don't have room for improvement. As long as we win, that's all I care about."
--C Andy McCollum was back at center for the first time since being switched to left guard last season, and had his best game as a Ram, according to coach Mike Martz.
--DE Bryce Fisher, starting his first game at right end after the departure of Grant Wistrom had three tackles, seven assists, a sack and a pass deflection. Coach Mike Martz singled out Fisher for his play against the Cardinals.
--CB Jerametrius Butler broke a bone in his finger against Arizona, but continued playing. Butler played well in run support, registering six tackles, three assistant and two passes defensed.
--DT Damione Lewis, who has yet to live up to the expectations of being the 12th overall pick in the 2001 draft, had one of his better games against Arizona. Lewis was in on six tackles, and had a late sack that helped end an Arizona possession.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"It's hard to remember really how quick he was, but today he made some great moves. He made some great cuts and looked like the Marshall Faulk of old, not the old Marshall Faulk." - Guard Adam Timmerman on how Marshall Faulk's play compared to a few years ago