BY JEFF GORDON
Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist
09/12/2004

No, it wasn't pretty. Yes, it still counted as one full victory.

The Rams managed to beat the lowly Arizona Cardinals 17-10 at The Ed, but they should have demolished them.

"We just couldn't put them away when we had the opportunity," coach Mike Martz said.

Tackle Orlando Pace and the rest of the jerry-rigged offensive line dominated the Gridbirds. Veteran Marshall Faulk ran like a kid again -- adding another 100-yard game to his list -- and young Steven Jackson ran like a vet.

The defensive unit played solidly across the board, holding the injury-riddled Gridbirds to one touchdown drive. The Rams owned the line of scrimmage all afternoon.

So why did it take them almost three hours to gain control of this game? First-half fumbles by Jackson and Dane Looker -- combined with quarterback Marc Bulger's first-quarter interception -- kept the Rams from building a big lead early.

Also, the red zone inefficiency from last season seemed to carry over to this opener.

"That's more play selection than anything else," Martz said. "I'm to blame for that."

In the first half, they outgained the Cards 229-134. But those turnovers limited them to a 6-3 halftime lead.

The Rams controlled the second half as well, save for one Cardinals drive, and finally put their season opener in the bank.


THE GOOD

* Martz established his ground game right away, giving Faulk four consecutive carries to gain two first downs. The highlight was a 15-yard burst that very nearly went for many more yards.

Faulk and Jackson combined for 99 yards rushing in the first half.


* Defensive end Bryce Fisher essentially killed the second Cardinals possession with a 16-yard sack of quarterback Josh McCown.


* Mixing it up, Martz opened his second possession with a four-receiver set and got Bulger into a nice passing rhythm. Aside from a mishap here or there, he stayed in sync with his receivers all game.


* Faulk turned back the clock on the third possession, busting a 16-yard gain on a turn-on-a-dime cutback. Did he look this good at any time last season?


* Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa crushed Bryant Johnson to break up a third-down slant pass early in the second quarter.


* Jeff Wilkins finally put the Rams on the board, muscling up with a 50-yard field goal with 11 minutes 21 seconds left in the first half. Points at last!


* Bulger marched the Rams 83 yards on a 14-play, 9:10 drive to start the second half. He spread the ball around, hitting passes to Torry Holt, Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Shaun McDonald.


* Jackson proved his red zone value in that sequence, muscling for a first down on a third-and-one sweep, then cutting back for a 13-yard gain on the next play.

Alas, he and the Rams couldn't punch the ball in after earning a first-and-goal opportunity on the Arizona 4.


* The Rams FINALLY got into the end zone with 14:27 left to play, on Bulger's 8-yard slant pass to Bruce to cap an 80-yard drive. A two-point conversion run pushed the Rams ahead 17-10.


* Rookie linebacker Brandon Chillar helped end a fourth-quarter Arizona possession by reading an end-around run by Larry Fitzgerald. He grabbed him for a one-yard loss.


* Yes, that was defensive tackle Damione Lewis finishing off the Gridbirds with his timely third-down sack of McCown with 4 ½ minutes left.


THE BAD

* The Rams defense got burned by a flea-flicker right out of the gate, with Smith taking a handoff and flipping the ball back to McCown, who connected with receiver Fitzgerald for a 37-yard gain.

Cardinals coach Dennis Green sent the early message that he brought his team to St. Louis to play.


* With 5:49 left in the first quarter, the Rams had to burn their second timeout of the half when the process of putting this guy and that guy in motion ate up the play clock.


* Bulger stayed in his passing rhythm to finally move the Rams into the red zone, but then the offense sputtered – as it did for too much of last season. The Rams had to settle for a 28-yard Wilkins field goal and a 6-3 lead.


* On a third-and-goal call at the Arizona 2 in the third quarter, Martz called for tight end Cam Cleeland to get the ball on an inside reverse run. No kidding.

Cleeland got stuffed for a two-yard loss, forcing the Rams to settle for still another field goal.


* The Rams lost a DeJuan Groce interception at their 2-yard line, due to a defensive holding call on Tyoka Jackson. On the next play, Emmitt Smith added to his Hall of Fame credentials with an 11-yard touchdown run that put Arizona ahead 10-9.


* Once the Rams got a seven-point lead, it would have been nice to see them sustain a clock-eating drive. But neither their play-calling or their execution was very good, so Arizona managed to hang around until the final two minutes.


THE UGLY

* Jackson's first NFL carry ended badly; he fumbled at the end of a 14-yard run, thus killing a potential scoring drive. There was no reason to challenge the call, but Martz did so anyway and burned a timeout.

Good to see Mad Mike was in midseason form!


* The Rams moved into scoring position on their second drive, only to see Bulger float a deep punt/pass to Cardinals free safety Quentin Harris on the Cardinals 2.


* The Rams moved into scoring position on their third drive, only to see to Looker spit up the ball to Harris after catching a slant pass.


* Josh Scobey roared through a gaping hole in the Rams kickoff coverage and raced 71 yards to the Rams 29. Safety Rich Coady managed to keep his angle on Scobey to prevent the touchdown.


It's all Bobby April's fault. Oh, um, never mind.

The Cardinals parlayed that special teams break into a game-tying 22-yard field goal by Neil Rackers.