FIRST QUARTER

The Broncos got the opening kickoff, giving Rams Nation an immediate look at Jim Haslett’s defense.

And the unit stepped up. The Broncos earned one first down, working around a false-start penalty, but then Leonard Little sacked quarterback Jake Plummer on a third-and-seven play. What made the sack especially impressive was the holding penalty called on the play.

Little got a hand into Plummer’s feet while getting taken down. Nice.

One bad note on the defense: Nose tackle Jimmy Kennedy was led off for X-rays on his injured hand. The X-ray showed that his hand was broken, so medical personnel outfitted him with a cast. Meanwhile, Jason Fisk stepped in at nose tackle.

New coach Scott Linehan had a good play script for the first quarter. Mixing the run and pass very well, the Rams moved into scoring position on their first possession.

Marc Bulger completed his first pass, a quick 7-yard out to Torry Holt. Steven Jackson barged for a 6-yard gain. When the Broncos left Isaac Bruce uncovered just off left tackle, Bulger located him for an easy 14-yard gain.

Jackson gained 10 yards with an excellent catch-and-run coming out of the backfield. Then Bulger located Holt on a slant for seven yards and Bruce on a crossing pattern for five more as the Rams reached the Denver 18.

Proving he is willing to run hard between the tackles this season, Jackson plowed forward for nine yards and another first down.

Could the Rams convert for seven points on their first red-zone foray? Uh, no.

Bulger threw away his first pass on first-and-goal, since nobody broke free. Bulger dumped a pass off to Jackson, but he gained just one yard. Bulger then tried to squeeze a quick slant pass to Shaun McDonald, but there was nothing there.

So the Rams settled for a 26-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal and a 3-0 lead.

This is one of the issues that hurt the Rams last season. They marched the ball 69 yards against a tough defense, but couldn’t make the plays once they got in close.

Little got to Plummer, again, on the first play of Denver’s next possession. Plummer avoided the sack by flipping the ball to Mike Bell for no gain.

After the Broncos earned a first down, Little continued his Pro Bowl campaign by paving Plummer and jarring the ball loose. Eventually, Pisa Tinoisamoa gathered up the football and covered it on the Denver 3.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan requested a video review, believing Plummer was in the act of passing. He wasn’t — Plummer had tucked the ball away before Little creamed him.

Alas, the Rams failed again in the red zone. After Jackson gained one yard, Linehan called a pass play. Nothing materialized – and Bulger was flagged for intentional grounding after doubling back to avoid the rush and throwing the ball to the open left side of the field.

Wilkins kicked another field goal, but those three points were erased by Madison Hedgecock’s holding penalty. Wilkins tried again from 44 yards . . . and hit the post.

The Rams offense got the ball on the Denver 3 and got zero points. It doesn’t get much more painful than that.

And, oh yeah, the Broncos got the ball back in good field position on their 34. This could have been a huge turning point in the game, except that the Rams got the ball right when O.J. Atogwe recovered a Tatum Bell’s fumble on the next play.


SECOND QUARTER

Marc Bulger moved the chains with a third-down completion to Torry Holt, moving the Rams back into scoring position. But the sputtering Rams offense stalled again, so Jeff Wilkins came out again to salvage the sequence.

This time Wilkins nailed a 38-yard kick and the Rams led 6-0.

The amazing Rams defense stepped up, again, when rookie cornerback Tye Hill picked off a third-down Jake Plummer pass and returned the ball to the Denver 14. This turnover was forced by a combination of a well-executed corner blitz and Hill’s terrific break on the ball.

But the Rams failed AGAIN in the red zone. Bulger misfired on a third-and-four slant pass and Wilkins was again summoned.

He converted his 29-yard attempt and the Rams had a 9-0 lead. That’s not bad — but when you consider the offense had run 23 consecutive plays in Denver territory by this point in the game, a 9-0 lead is not great.

Jim Haslett’s defense delivered still again, as cornerback Fakhir Brown destroyed Plummer with a 10-yard sack — blitzing right into a bootleg play on third down. Nice defensive call!

The Rams offense produced one decent play, a 24-yard Bulger-to-Holt pass, but then the unit died again. Fortunately for the Rams, Wilkins had enough leg to get a 51-yard field goal over the crossbar and push their lead to 12-0.

Jimmy Kennedy was able to return to action with a cast on his hand, but center Andy McCollum left the game with a knee injury. Larry Turner filled in for him.

How desperate were the Broncos getting in this game? With four minutes left in the first half, coach Mike Shanahan elected to go for a first down on fourth-and-one from the Denver 30. (Given the Rams’ inability to score touchdowns, the gamble was somewhat mitigated.)

The Broncos converted, barely, and finally got rolling into the Rams side of the field. Plummer started picking up big chunks of yardage in the passing game, with the help of excellent execution on a couple of screen plays.

Plummer’s big play on this 79-yard drive was a 19-yard pass to tight end Stephen Alexander, completed after he scrambled away from both Rams defensive ends deep in his backfield.

Mike Bell catapaulted into the end zone from a yard out with 26 seconds left in the half, proving that it IS physically impossible to score a touchdown at the Edward Jones Dome.

Instead being blown out of this game — which they should have been, given their turnovers — the Broncos trailed just 12-7 at the half.


THIRD QUARTER

The third quarter started well enough for the Rams, with new specialist J.R. Reed returning the kickoff out to the 34-yard line. Marc Bulger completed a first-down pass to Torry Holt, then Steven Jackson rambled 20 yards off right tackle.

Could the Rams finally gather enough offensive momentum to score an actual touchdown?

No. Bulger took a nine-yard sack by hanging onto the ball too long, so the Rams ultimately settled for a 48-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal and a 15-7 lead.

This was his fifth field goal of the game, tying a club record with plenty of time left in the second half. But unless you have Wilkins as your fantasy football team kicker, the Rams’ inability to score touchdowns was vexing.

The Broncos broke Tatum Bell loose for a 31-yard gain to get their offense started in the second half. An offsides penalty on Leonard Little helped Denver escape third-and-seven jam and the Broncos rolled into scoring range.

But after Javon Walker dropped what could have been a HUGE catch-and-run play, defensive end Anthony Hargrove led a sack party that buried Plummer deep in his backfield.

When was the last time the Rams defense played this well against a top opponent?

Bulger got the crowd’s hopes up with his 34-yard completion to Isaac Bruce on a rollout pass, but, again, the offense died. Matt Turk had to punt the football back the Broncos.

The Rams defense earned another three-and-out stop, thwarting a third-and-10 screen pass with a three-man rush and linebacker Will Witherspoon’s excellent pursuit.

A 17-yard pass from Bulger to Holt got the Rams back to midfield with four minutes left in the quarter. With the Broncos defense effectively stuffing the run, the Rams were forced into some long-yardage passing situations.

A successful Broncos replay challenge negated a long Bulger-to-Holt completion third down, so the Rams had to punt the ball back — again.

J.R. Reed was flagged for a costly 15-yard penalty on that punt, so the Broncos got to start their next possession on their 35-yard line.

A couple of Tatum Bell runs and an 18-yard pass to Walker moved the Broncos well into Rams territory as the quarter expired.


FOURTH QUARTER

The Rams defense stiffened, again, and forced the Broncos to settle for Jason Elam’s 49-yard goal on the second play of the fourth quarter.

That cuts the Rams lead to 15-10 and set the stage for an exciting finish.

An especially feckless three-and-out sequence by the Rams offense forced Turk to punt the ball back to the Broncos, again.

And back came the Broncos, with a 36-yard Mike Bell run. Plummer then had Todd Devoe wide open for a potential TD pass, but he hung the throw and Corey Chavous came and got with a tremendous interception.

Of course, the Rams went nowhere after that turnover and Turk had to punt the ball away, again.

Or did they? The Broncos roughed Turk, giving the Rams offense another chance 15 yards downfield.

This time the Rams found something on third down, catching the Broncos blitzing with a quick pass to running back Tony Fisher. With the right side of the field vacant, Fisher got 49 yards out of that play.

A 12-yard Steven Jackson run advanced the ball to the Denver 9.

Could the Rams finally execute a red-zone play when they needed it?

Jackson ran for three yards on first down. On second down, Torry Holt broke wide open in the back of the end zone on a play-action pass play . . . and Marc Bulger fired the ball well behind him.

On third down, the Rams tried to spring Isaac Bruce in the back of the end zone. He never got open, but Bulger threw the ball anyway.

The pass fell incomplete, so Jeff Wilkins came on to kick his club-record sixth field goal of the game — this time from 24 yards out, expanding the Rams lead to 18-10.

The Broncos tried to mount a comeback. A pass interference penalty on corner Fakhir Brown (disputed by the Rams bench, got the ball out to the Denver 48.

A 14-yard Tatum Bell run got the Broncos into the Rams territory, then he converted a third-down play with a 4-yard run to the Rams 38.

But the Rams defense made one last heroic play. with linebacker Will Witherspoon flying through the air to deflect a Plummer pass and Brown grabbing the clinching interception on the carom.


RECAP

RAMS RECAP

The Rams certainly DO look different in 2006.

Back in the day, “The Greatest Show on Turf” blistered opponents with their talented and innovative offense. The thrilling Air Martz attack propelled this team to two NFC Championships and one Super Bowl victory.

The defense? Well, it was just good enough during that period.

Under new coach Scott Linehan, the ’06 Rams appear to be vastly improved on defense. But can the offense get back into passing gear?

It didn’t happen against the Broncos Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams repeatedly failed in the red zone during their season opener, forcing kicker Jeff Wilkins to handle the scoring.

Wilkins kicked six field goals, a new club record, allowing the Rams to start their season with an 18-10 victory.

First, the good news. The Rams defense opened brilliantly, giving this team every chance to blow the Broncos off the field during the first half.

Defensive end Leonard Little forced a Jake Plummer fumble that Pisa Tinoisamoa recovered on the Denver 3.

Cornerback Tye Hill picked off a Plummer pass and ran it back to the Broncos 17. O.J. Atogwe also recovered a first-half fumble – forced by linebacker Will Witherspoon — and the defense delivered a number of third-down stops.

The Rams did a lot of damage with their blitzes, but they also generated significant pass pressure with their regular four-man rushes. Their run defense was solid, too, so this game could have easily turned into a rout.

Put the emphasis on could, because the Rams offense repeatedly failed to convert their scoring opportunities.

This is the bad news. The home team many opportunities to seize total control of the game during that first half . . . but each time, they faltered.

The lowlight: After Tinoisamoa’s recovery on the Denver 3, the Rams got zero points – going back, back and backward until Wilkins missed a 44-yard field goal.

Yikes!

Bit the Rams continued their brilliant defensive play through the second half. Corey Chavous thwarted a potential Broncos scoring drive early in the fourth quarter, leaping high to intercept a tardy home-run ball from Plummer to Todd Devoe.

Then the Rams forced one more turnover to clinch the game. Witherspoon flew through the air to deflect a Plummer pass and teammate Fakhir Brown picked it off.

Whew!