Rams Come Up Just Short
DETROIT – For a complicated game, football often can be broken down to very simple terms when determining a winner and a loser.
In the Rams’ disappointing 27-23 loss to the Lions on Sunday at Ford Field, coach Jeff Fisher and his team made it abundantly clear that for a game that had plenty of twists, turns and lead changes, the outcome boiled down to something quite elementary.
“It’s all about making plays,” Fisher said. “You know, you make plays at the end you win. They made them, we didn’t. We lost.”
For the better part of the 60 minutes on the clock Sunday afternoon, the Rams seemed to be the team making those plays. In fact, they made so many defensive plays in the first half that they entered the locker room with a halftime lead, leaving the sell out crowd in stunned silence.
As the defense produced big play after big play in the first half, the onus turned to the offense and special teams in the second half and the combination left the Rams poised to steal a road win to open the 2012 season.
“I’m really disappointed for our team because they did a great job preparing,” Fisher said. “I felt like they knew what to do. They had a great deal of respect for their opponent and we gave ourselves a chance to stay in the game and win at the end. We just couldn’t make the play.”
Ultimately, making the play could have been any number of opportunities that presented themselves in the fourth and final quarter.
Nursing a 23-20 lead with 1:55 to play, the Rams defense returned to the field, a place it had spent a large chunk of the game, particularly in the first half. With 80 yards of field to protect, the defense wasn’t quite up to the task.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford went to work fast, hitting wideout Calvin Johnson for 20 yards and then Nate Burleson for 20 more. Just like that, Detroit was in Rams territory.
Four plays later, Stafford hit Johnson again, this time for a gain of 18 yards to the Rams’ 5 with 17 seconds left.
After a spike to stop the clock, Stafford found running back Kevin Smith wide open in the right flat for a touchdown and the final margin. The drive covered 80 yards in nine plays or, as the Rams view it, nine opportunities to make the play to preserve a victory.
“I mean I have to look at it but we weren’t intentionally trying to give up 20 yards a chunk,” Fisher said. “If we made the tackle in the back of the flat they may not have gotten their snap off. We were that close.”
Likewise, one more first down on the drive that gave the Rams a 23-20 lead would have given them a chance to run the clock all the way down and kick a game winner as time expired.
That close to a victory but it was heartbreak and the what if game that ensconced the Rams locker room after the game.
“It was a hard fought game,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “We did some really good things out there. We are a really good football team; we have just got to find a way to finish. Take nothing away from the Lions, they’re a high powered offense, they found a way to make a play. We didn’t make a play.”
For at least the first 30 minutes, though, Finnegan and Co. certainly did make a play.
On the game’s opening drive, the Lions marched methodically into Rams territory before rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins sat on a back shoulder throw from Stafford for tight end Tony Scheffler. Jenkins snatched his first career interception and returned it 34 yards to help set up a 48-yard field goal by kicker Greg Zuerlein.
Two possessions later, Stafford fired into the left flat for tight end Brandon Pettigrew and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar jumped in front for his first career interception and a return of 42 yards to set up another field goal.
Detroit’s next possession wasn’t a different result for the Lions but it was for the Rams as this time Finnegan waited on an out route to wideout Calvin Johnson, darted outside from his spot in the slot and picked it off before a high wire act along the sideline that resulted in a 31-yard return for a touchdown and a 13-7 Rams lead.
Finnegan’s interception was the 15th of his career and fourth for a touchdown. It was the third in the opening 30 minutes, something the Rams haven’t done in one half since Dec. 15, 1996 against Atlanta.
“It was just a lot of film study,” Finnegan said. “Credit the coaches for giving us a great game plan. We just executed it. They made some adjustments, made some plays in the second half. They are a good football team. We just didn’t make a play at the end.”
Despite a late Detroit drive in the first half that cut the Rams’ edge to 13-10 going into the half, the Rams didn’t wilt coming out of the locker room. The Lions got a 45-yard field goal from kicker Jason Hanson to tie it at 13 but that would do it for the scoring in the third.
Heading into the fourth, the onus fell on the Rams to generate some offense, something they hadn’t done without the benefit of a turnover.
That meant a chance for Bradford to engineer some key late drives.
“I’ve had faith in our quarterback since I took this job and I’m going to continue to do so,” Fisher said.
Making matters difficult for the Rams was a shuffling of the offensive line after injuries to left tackle Rodger Saffold (neck) and center Scott Wells (foot). Compounding that was an offense that struggled to get the running game going, something that doesn’t help a run-centric team like the Rams want to be.
Running back Steven Jackson had 21 carries for 53 yards and the Rams had 27 total carries for 78 yards, an average of just 2.9 yards per attempt.
“They did a good job up front,” Bradford said. “Probably quite a few loaded boxes we were trying to run into. But we’re going to try to pound the ball. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to run it at people. We’re going to be a physical team. We’re going to grind out those run yards.”
But it wasn’t the running game that put the Rams in position to steal a victory in Motown.
Bradford engineered a pair of impressive drives to produce 10 points, giving the Rams leads of 20-13 and 23-20 at various points in the fourth quarter. Highlighting those drives was a perfect 23-yard touchdown pass from Bradford to wideout Brandon Gibson with just under 10 minutes to go in the final quarter.
Bradford finished 17-of-25 for 198 yards with the score and no interceptions for a rating of 105.1. Although those drives didn’t help result in a win, the fact that the offense got the job done when called late in games was a positive sign for the future.
“It showed that guys are gutting it out and winning some individual battles,” Jackson said. “We were able to move the ball down the field. Of course we would love to punch it in the end zone but we have a lot of film we can go over and build off of the rest of the season.”
Despite the near miss, there was nobody in the Rams locker room claiming a moral victory. Falling short left them lamenting what could have been.
Still, that doesn’t mean there won’t be things the team can take from the loss to become a better team in week 2 than in week 1.
“It’s a tough one,” Jackson said. “You always want to open up the season with a victory, especially on the road. We knew they were going to be a tough opponent coming off a playoff season last year and for us to have the lead the majority of the game and lose it at the end, it hurts. But we have something to build off of and some film to look at and improve on.”
Even if it’s only one play more, that improvement could be enough to turn narrow losses into hard-fought wins.