Sunday, January 1, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

IRVING, Tex. - For a Rams team that has long since been eliminated from playoff contention, Sunday night’s game had no meaning in the grand scheme of the season.

But that didn’t stop St. Louis from taking advantage of the opportunity to build toward next year by working in some young and inexperienced players. Those players, combined with a defense that played unlike any that has taken the field for the Rams’ 30th-ranked defense this season by shutting down a Dallas running game that was expected to steamroll to a victory.

The Rams won their regular season finale 20-10 on Sunday night at Texas Stadium. The victory brought St. Louis to a final mark of 6-10, its worst record since 1998 when it finished 4-12. The Rams will draft 11th in April’s NFL Draft.
It was a season of strange happenings and odd turmoil, but at least the Rams were able to put it to an end on a positive note.

“This is the last week, with nothing to play for and we worked a lot of extra hours to try to scheme Dallas a little bit,” interim coach Joe Vitt said. “Our players bought into it. I am very proud of them. We talked earlier in the week. You are putting your resume out there. We are playing the last game of the season, national televised game, we didn’t know whether Dallas would be playing for a playoff spot or not.”

Earlier Sunday, the Cowboys were eliminated from playoff contention after Carolina defeated Atlanta and Washington beat Philadelphia.

Even with that news, the Cowboys played all of their starters and clearly played to win. But for a team that posted huge rushing totals against a good Carolina defense a week ago, there was nothing to be found on the ground Sunday night.

St. Louis held Dallas to 57 yards on 22 carries, an average of just 2.6 yards. Aside from a 28-yard pickup by Julius Jones, the defense allowed few big plays and next to nothing on the ground. Jones finished with 35 yards on 15 carries with two catches for negative-11 yards one week after hanging 194 yards on Carolina.

“I thought we took a huge step backwards last week against San Francisco, but we did rebound,” Vitt said. “Guys who played poorly last week played well today. It all has to do with tackling and we tackled better today.”

It wasn’t just the run defense that was much improved. The Rams were plus-four in turnover margin and had five sacks to go with countless other pressures on quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Defensive end Leonard Little did whatever he wanted for most of the game racking up a sack and a half and making four tackles, but he was in Bledsoe’s face for most of the day.

Little got plenty of help from fellow end Anthony Hargrove as well, with Hargrove making a pair of sacks, bringing his total in the past three weeks to five and a half.

“We did everything right,” Little said. “We didn’t miss many tackles, we put pressure on the quarterback, we got turnovers. I wish we would have been doing that since the beginning of the year, but it didn’t happen that way.”

And some of that production came from unexpected source. With the Rams clinging to a 17-10 lead late in the game, rookie safety Oshiomogho Atogwe intercepted Bledsoe and returned it to the Dallas 3. That set up Jeff Wilkins’ 20-yard field goal for the final margin and essentially ended the game.

Atogwe added a half sack and a fumble recovery in his best game as a pro.

“Whenever I am out there I just try to play my best and whether it be the last game of the season or the first game of the season, you are always auditioning for somebody,” Atogwe said. “I was just fortunate to be on the field and be able to make plays for my team. I took my opportunity and made the best of it.”

With the game tied at 10 in the fourth quarter, the defense made its biggest play of the day. Little and Pisa Tinoisamoa converged on quarterback Drew Bledsoe with Little swiping the ball away and knocking it loose.

Hargrove recovered the fumble at the Dallas 40, giving the Rams excellent field position. St. Louis quickly converted that opportunity into points, keyed by an impressive 28-yard grab by tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

Atogwe wasn’t the only young Ram to take advantage of his opportunity. With Steven Jackson out because of a hip pointer, running backs Aveion Cason and Arlen Harris handled a part of the load on the ground along with Marshall Faulk.

Cason made his presence felt immediately, pounding in from 8 yards away for the Rams’ first touchdown and a 10-7 lead. Cason has spent most of the season on the inactive list, but took advantage of his chance to the tune of 10 carries for 65 yards with a touchdown.

Although Cason had played previously in Dallas, he said that had nothing to do with his performance. Most of his motivation came from the fact that he hasn’t been on the field at all this year aside from the preseason.

”I just feel like I wanted to go out and get my chance, get my opportunity and take advantage of my opportunity,” Cason said. “I really wasn’t worried about me coming back here and playing against them. I just wanted to come out here and have a good game.”

Another little-used Ram made his contribution two plays after Manumaleuna’s catch when running back Arlen Harris joined Cason in scoring his first touchdown of the season, taking it in from a yard out for a 17-10 lead.

Harris had 10 carries for 15 yards, but his touchdown proved to be the winning score.

“Those two guys run hard now,” Vitt said. “They run down hill. They are not waiting to pick a hole. They are going to run somebody over. Aveion is on this football team because of his toughness and downhill running ability.”

It didn’t hurt that the Rams had no turnovers as Jamie Martin managed the game well, going 19-of-32 for 158 yards.

In a year that has been hard on the entire organization, Sunday night was a time to forget about all of the off the field problems, all of the injuries and all of the other losses.

“Football is the only thing I have ever done,” Vitt said. “I wouldn’t change anything. This has been a wonderful group of players to work with and a wonderful coaching staff. All of the credit goes to the coaching staff and the players tonight.”

For the first time in a long time, it was all about the football.