By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
01/02/2006


IRVING, TEXAS Trying to ring out the old year in good fashion, the Rams rang in the new year with something new Sunday night against Dallas. Namely, contributions from unheralded and largely unseen players in a season-ending, 20-10 victory over Dallas.

Running back Aveion Cason, a forgotten man who had played in only one game previously this season, scored a touchdown and returned kickoffs. Arlen Harris, who had only five touches all season entering the game, also scored a TD. And tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, rarely used in the passing game all season, had a key catch for the go-ahead score.

As a topper, a late interception by rookie safety Oshiomogho Atogwe resulted in an insurance field goal by Jeff Wilkins that made it a two-score game.

"This was a great win for our football team," said Joe Vitt, completing his 11-game tenure as interim head coach in place of the ailing Mike Martz. "Our players came out and played with a lot of passion. ... The players have hung together."

Cason and Harris saw duty because running back Steven Jackson was a pregame scratch with a hip injury. Their contributions, plus some unexpectedly strong defensive play, helped the Rams snap a four-game losing streak and complete the season with a 6-10 mark.

The Rams came out wearing blue pants in honor of ailing radio analyst and former Rams wide receiver Jack Snow. Snow was listed in critical condition in St. Louis with a staph infection.

"We did it for Jack," Vitt said. "We had our team priest hold a prayer service for Jack on Friday."

The change in trousers didn't make the St. Louis defense look faster and more aggressive, it just seemed that way against a Dallas team that was eliminated from playoff contention earlier in the day when Washington defeated Philadelphia.

The Rams defense produced four turnovers and sacked quarterback Drew Bledsoe five times. Anthony Hargrove had two of those sacks, and fellow defensive end Leonard Little added 1 1/2 for the Rams. Hargrove, a raw second-year player, closed out the season strongly with 4 1/2 sacks in his last three games.

"I don't know why it took so long to happen, but it just seemed like a light went off," Hargrove said. "And now the game seems to be slower, and everything seems a whole lot easier."

Dallas took the early lead, scoring on a 19-yard pass from Bledsoe to tight end Jason Witten, who got behind safety Adam Archuleta on the play. Witten, one of the NFL's top receiving tight ends, had some success working on the St. Louis secondary. But the Rams played some of their best run defense of the season, swarming Cowboys running back Julius Jones all evening. Jones finished with 35 yards on 15 carries.

Witten's first-quarter TD gave Dallas a 7-0 lead, but the Rams scored the game's next 10 points. Wilkins kicked a 49-yard field goal on the third play of the second quarter, on a drive that featured 28 yards of offense by Cason on two runs and one reception.

Later in the second quarter, the Rams took a 10-7 lead on an 8-yard, second-effort run by Cason. It was Cason's first touchdown as a Ram and just the fifth of his career. He scored two rushing TDs as a Cowboy in 2003 and two receiving TDs as a Detroit Lion in 2002. Sunday's score gave the Rams a 10-7 lead with 1 minute 52 seconds remaining before halftime.

Cason had been told before the game that he would be returning kickoffs, but he didn't know for sure until he saw his jersey hanging in his locker stall during pregame.

"It was frustrating not playing in the beginning of the season," Cason said. "It was good to get a chance. We had fun (Sunday). Marshall (Faulk) told us before the game, 'Go ahead and just have fun.'"

Even after Cason's touchdown, it looked as if the Rams couldn't stand the prosperity. On the ensuing kickoff, Tyson Thompson of Dallas returned Wilkins' boot 44 yards to the St. Louis 45. With the return, Thompson set a Dallas single-season record for kickoff return yards, with 1,353.

Dallas advanced the ball to the St. Louis 4 with 17 seconds remaining in the half, but after two incomplete passes by Bledsoe, it had to settle for a Shuan Suisham field goal and a 10-10 tie at the half.

That's the way it remained until early in the fourth quarter. The Rams, who had a steady pass rush all evening, forced a fumble when linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and Little made a sandwich of Bledsoe with 13:31 remaining. The ball popped loose, with Hargrove recovering at the Dallas 40.

It took only three plays to reach the end zone. First, quarterback Jamie Martin found Manumaleuna over the middle for 29 yards. Manumaleuna, who entered the game with only 11 catches for 104 yards all season, hung onto the ball despite getting walloped on the play by Cowboys safety Willie Pile.

From there, Harris ran 10 yards around left end to the 1. On the next play, Harris dived into the end zone for the TD and a 17-10 Rams lead with 11:57 remaining. It was Harris' first TD since 2003 and only the fifth on his three-year NFL career.