BY JEFF GORDON
Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist
09/13/2004

OK, so hosting the injury-riddled Arizona Cardinals in the season opener is tantamount to staging a fifth preseason game.

We'll give you that. It'll be awhile before new coach Dennis Green can get Bill Bidwill's perennial doormat up and running.

And the Rams' 17-10 victory over the Gridbirds should have been more like 35-7. Those three first-half turnovers and that long kickoff return prevented the Rams from building a good margin.

But let's not quibble about style points. The positives easily outweighed the negatives Sunday.

Colleague Bernie Miklasz gave the defense some well-earned props and fellow P-D columnist Bryan Burwell talked up Marshall Faulk's tremendous performance. The most pleasing aspect of this victory, in my eyes, was the play of tackle Orlando Pace and the offensive line.

Quarterback Marc Bulger faced occasional pressure, but he never suffered a sack. Faulk and Steven Jackson found ample room to run, outside, inside, left, right, the middle, wherever.

The Rams averaged 5.9 yards per carry, even with the ill-fated Cam Cleeland running play thrown in. So we saw what we needed to see from the front five.

"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," Pace told reporters after the game. "If you can do that you will have success and you will win the ballgame."

Indeed. The line execution was outstanding, which allowed Faulk and Jackson to get rolling downhill and Bulger to settle into his passing rhythm.

Pace saw his first combat of the summer at left tackle and looked just fine. He took his razzing for sitting out training camp and performed like a champ on Sunday, despite hearing some boos from angry Rams fans.

Now the onus will shift to the team to finally get his signature on a long-term deal. Pace showed up ready to play, so now the Rams better be ready to pay.

Those fans who suggested the Rams should trade Pace? I'm sure many reconsidered their stance after seeing him back in action.

Un-retired left guard Chris Dishman got another opportunity to scrape off the rust and work into game shape. Neither he or Pace pulled a muscle or strained a joint while playing catch-up on the field.

Journeyman Grant Williams settled into the starting assignment at right tackle and didn't make any glaring mistakes.

Facing the Gridbirds wasn't like facing the Eagles or Ravens, but Arizona provided a significant test for a unit that coach Mike Martz had to rebuild on the fly. These blockers are still getting accustomed to working with each other.

They are still trying to build chemistry and an identity, which takes time.

Can we say this will be a great offensive line? Of course not. We're weeks away from being able to make a true assessment of how good this unit should be.

But this was a very good beginning for a line that had every excuse to start poorly this season